Motherland: A Novel

A Novel

Counterpoint Press
January 2014
ISBN 978-1619022379

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with Dan Smetanka (Counterpoint Press), editor of Motherland

What was your research process in writing Motherland? How difficult was it to mine your family’s history for the purposes of a novel? Did you discover anything you felt you just could not or should not use?
My research process actually began when I was a girl, when I listened to my father’s stories of his German childhood. I turned the tales over and over in my mind, fascinated by their strangeness, the lurking shadows that I didn’t understand until probably middle school, when I first saw photographs of Auschwitz.

Some summers, we actually lived at my father’s boyhood home: a villa in a spa town outside Frankfurt. The house had a walled garden, a wine cellar, cavernous rooms with heavy gray blinds that came rattling down at night and sealed us from the world. Every time I walked out the door, I jumped for the lowest limbs of the sour cherry tree outside and ate the tart red fruit.


When I began working on the novel, the lives of the children came easiest to me because of these memories. I struggled more with the adults. Even in my family, a silence shrouded the war years and my grandparents did not speak of their former politics to their children. When my father told me that one relative had a job counting the trains that carried people to their deaths, he didn’t know much more than that fact. Uncle So-and-So had counted trains.


As far as my close family members, what information I knew was contradictory. My Opa hung a portrait of Hitler at his hospital. He also insisted that the gang of prisoners working on the building get a full meal for their efforts, a kindness which was frowned upon. I knew these two competing stories and so I decided to fill out a man who accommodated both.


That’s why the letters between my grandparents were such a key to the book. When my grandfather deserted his post in Weimar to escape the advancing Russian army, he hid a packet of letters in an attic wall in Thüringen. Fifty years later, the couple renovating the house found them, and my uncle, who was living at the same address on the envelope, the same villa. My grandmother, a new wife and stepmother, wrote most of them. Her voice, cheerful and warm but also tentative, really hooked me. Here was a woman who stepped into a shattered, grieving family at possibly the worst time in her nation’s history and she was determined to make the best of it.


The setting of the novel feels crucial – Germany near the end of the war of course but in a fairly remote spa town, in a family home, in a medical station located near a concentration camp. How does a physical landscape play into your idea of the characters and what they must contend with? How different would the novel have been if it were set in, say, Berlin?
The book about Berlin has been written, both in fiction and nonfiction. And Berliners were under constant attack—their lives were in extremis. In the spa town and Weimar’s medical station, I wanted to write about small, seemingly protected places, to show how the lives of ordinary Germans also completely shattered. The season of winter was as important to me as the locations. The whiteness, the grayness, the snowy land, the grip of the cold—I kept coming back to winter because it is a kind of desert, a place of thirst and bareness and revelation.


The title of the novel is a play on the fading idea of a German Fatherland – the male protection has failed and Germany will lose the war – and the ascension of women as the ones to lead the way toward the future. Can you talk about the title and its importance to you?
I have to credit two poets and one editor for this title. Eavan Boland, my director at Stanford, wrote a book called Domestic Violence that beautifully captures and questions how war infiltrated suburban lives in Ireland. She also translated the work of 20th century German women poets in After Every War, which was largely dealing with a similar question. These books showed me how war could shadow the home, the lives of mothers and children, and how survival and innocence could become fatefully at odds. One poem in particular, Rose Ausländer’s “Motherland,” is a hymn to this transformation, and it’s the epigraph to the book. When you, dear editor, pointed out the importance of mothers in the novel, it suddenly fit: I could invert the masculinized German name for homeland and claim it for women.

Liesl is an incredibly compelling and sympathetic character. A new wife to a man she barely knows, a new mother to an infant and two young boys, and she must take charge of their safety and survival once her husband is called into military service. How did you create this character and why did you decide she would be one of the main figures in the story? Could you relate to her the most?
Liesl just kept taking over. The minute I started writing about her, I couldn’t stop. Like her, I was a new mother. Like her, I was trying to care for an ill child. Our son fell sick with an autoimmune disease soon after I started the book and spent years in and out of the hospital. His disease was initially mysterious, as Liesl’s stepson Ani’s sickness is, and I didn’t know if I had caused it somehow, or how I could help in its cure. Complicity grows a very personal edge when parents are tested in this way.

So I identified with Liesl, and yet her challenges were epic and deeply connected to my curiosity about my father and my family history. Through her, I was simultaneously able to live out some of my own hopes, experiences, and fears, and to examine my inheritance.


Motherland is set toward the end of a very brutal world war, even as its epic sweep is contained in the story of this one German family and their experience of survival. Do you feel the novel is ultimately hopeful toward the human condition or does it say something darker about our impulses and temperament? What did you hope the reader would gain in reading the story of one German family’s experiences during the war?
I’m reluctant to say anything here, because the story of Germans in World War II is so complex and so fraught, it truly took me an entire novel to work out my own feelings. If I tried to boil it down, I couldn’t it. Hopeful or dark—that interpretation belongs to the reader. My job was to bear witness as best I could, and let you decide what it means.




  1. How much did you know about German families in the Third Reich before reading Motherland? How did the book change your perspective?
  2. Readers experience Motherland through the points of view of several characters: Liesl, Frank, Uta, Hans, and Ani. How did seeing the book’s events through different eyes affect your understanding of what happened to the family?
  3. Many scenes of Motherland take place in the house, in a private domestic sphere, instead of on battlegrounds. How and where did you notice the war and all its terrors infiltrating the lives of mothers and children?
  4. In the first chapter, Herr Geiss digs a hole connecting the cellar shelters of the Kappus and the Geiss houses. How does that action become a catalyst for change for everyone in the family?
  5. The German word for “homeland” is Vaterland, or Fatherland. What did you make of Hummel’s title and the novel’s epigraph?
  6. Some readers have wondered why the novel stops in 1945 and does not continue to show the lives of the characters during reconstruction. Why do you think the author may have ended the book where she did?
  7. One critic said that Motherland does “what good historical fiction does best: explores what has passed in those undocumented rests between the things we know to be true.” What do you think is the responsibility of the historical novelist?
  8. Who or what is the villain of Motherland?
  9. In the afterword, Hummel discusses her personal relationship to the novel and its characters. Did reading it alter your impressions of the book? How so?