A long heading, because this is a book with a lovely descriptive title, written by an author with a long name; and because I have to highlight was by a woman in translation because I had no idea that it was when I first caught sight of it and decided that I really wanted to read it.
This book is based on letters that the German author sent home from America during the World War II, and that when she went home after the war she re-worked for a newspaper column. Not long after that they were collected in book form, and some years later they were translated and an English language edition of the book was published.
(I love the translation by Ida H Washington and Carol E Washington, and the clever way they used English that was perfectly correct but not quite the way a native speaker would speak.)
Alice and Carl Zuckmayer, and their two daughters left Germany at the start of World War II. Zuck was a playwright, his most recent play had satirised the militarisation of Germany, and the couple were concerned that the authorities were taking the satire very seriously. They moved to Austria, then to Switzerland, before finally deciding to settle in the USA.
This book is an account of the years they spent living in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in the Vermont countryside.
It is clear that Alice – I call her Alice because I feel that I know her very well after reading her book – did a great deal of reworking of her material. The book had a beginning and an ending, there is some progression, but most of the chapters are written around a particular theme rather than a particular period of time; and it is clear that she has thought back over her years in America, adding more memories and more consideration of what she has to say.
Alice fell in love with her new home at first sight.
‘There were mountains wooded with firs, spruce, pine, beech, birch, elm and maple trees. In the woods there were weasels, marteens and foxes. It was a landscape that resembled the one at home even in details, and yet it was totally unfamiliar and foreign. It was as if we had come onto an enchanted, bewitched wood in which every shape had been transformed, over which even the moon hung in a different corner.
The farmhouse was run down, but the landlord was pleased to have tenants and organised all of the work needed to make it habitable. Then Alice and Zuck had to work out how best to support themselves, and after a thorough investigation of the possibilities open to them they decided that their best option was to become poultry farmers.
They took that very seriously, they clearly worked very hard, and they came to love what they were doing. The chapters about the farm birds are wonderful, they recognised that those birds had their own distinctive characters and their own society, and that makes the chapters that stories about them a joy to read.
They were practical and thoughtful – they worked out how to help sick birds logically and scientifically – but they were unsentimental and they didn’t lose sight of the fact that they were farmers – only birds that were not destined for slaughter would be given names.
Alice was very impressed by the USA.
‘It is a new world, and everything that happened in the old one is forgotten and not chalked up against on you the big board of the new world, but it isn’t written up to your credit either. It is called starting from the beginning. “To start all over again,” is one of the most meaningful sayings which America has produced … ‘
You see, she really thinks about things!
She devotes a whole chapter to the USDA, which she describes as ‘this powerful support system, this unique institution’, she appreciates the community around her, and it is clear that she thinks of the farmhouse not as a temporary refuge but as a proper home.
I loved her voice; it was warm and witty. I loved her thoughtfulness and her practicality; her readiness to work hard and her readiness to enjoy whatever life in America could offer her.
‘Great tree trunks stand in front of the town hall, driven a yard deep in the earth, and powerful lumberjacks stand by the trees and wait for the signal to compete in felling the trees with their axes. Blow follows blow until one tree after another falls …
Then it is the women’s turn. A piece of tree trunk too big to fit in the highest and widest fireplace must be cut through with a two-person saw. Now our Miss Perkins walks on to the scene, seventy-nine years old, and saws with Miss Patenaude, who is only seventy-six years old. And while they are sawing, precisely and powerfully, you catch a vision of the age of the pioneers. When they win and receive the first prize, you realise why women in America are not inferior to men. What wonderful things are the American celebrations.’
The book is firmly focused on the couple’s life and farm. Their daughters are only mentioned in passing, America coming into the war is only referenced because they have to register with the authorities, and when Alice mentions that a former farm hand who has come from the war in Japan considerably changed she doesn’t stop to wonder why.
I loved the chapter about the telephone – a party line shared with eight other households!
‘With the telephone we could find out how out neighbours were living, what they were thinking, when they were doing laundry, what was happening to them; from their voices we could tell if they were sad and out-of-sorts or happy and optimistic.’
I adored the chapter about the library – Alice’s love of the place, of books, of learning really shines – but I can’t quote it because it works so very well as a whole.
The book doesn’t end with a war.
Germany will always be home, but returning is difficult.
‘We found enemies again, too. They were unchanged. A few had been destroyed. Others sit behind bars. Many have assumed straight-jackets of de-nazification to convince people that they are normal again, but they are just waiting for a new era of insanity, when crimes will again be legally permitted and the mentally ill will again achieve power and honour.’
A return to Vermont stirs happy memories and brings reunion with friends and neighbours, but the couple has the wisdom to know that they have to move on. The world – and their old neighbourhood – is changing and the passing of the years means that they couldn’t put in the work that the farm needed and do the other things that they wanted to do.
I am so glad that Alice wrote those letters home, that she re-worked them, and that they were compiled and translated so that I could read this lovely book.