Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

'We Choose How We Treat Each Other' : People Like Us – Louise Fein

Historical fiction is a genre which offers a multiplicity of delights and insights. Transporting the modern reader to an epoch unlived is by turns entertaining, illuminating, didactic and occasionally spiritually redemptive. Immersion in the foreign land of the past can provide catharsis or engender its antithesis. The lessons of history are innumerable, ineluctably omnipresent and if consciously scrutinised, prescient warnings adumbrating that which may well occur once again.

Failure to learn from the past is perhaps a sin of equal magnitude to that of Laodicean apathy when confronted by intolerance, racism, bigotry and the greatest malevolence of all, inhumanity towards one’s fellow human. By revisiting the past through historical fiction, an author holds the power to illume uncomfortable truths, whilst also celebrating mankind’s capacity for heroism, goodness and defiant altruism. Louise Fein is such an author.

In her emotionally compelling and skilfully crafted debut novel, People Like Us, Fein takes us back to Leipzig, Germany in the 1930s. Anti-Semitism, like a toxic virus proliferating unchecked, is gradually spreading through the zeitgeist of a nation, polluting its moral fibre with insidious, brutal efficiency. Drawing upon her own family history, Fein gives us an emotionally tumultuous bildungsroman catalysed by an inescapable confrontation with embryonic Nazi ideology and its iniquitous burgeoning into dogma, oppression and murder.

Her chief protagonist, Hetty Heinrich is ostensibly the perfect young German child. The epitome of Hitler’s lionised breed of racially pure Aryan Germans, the master race. Her father holds enormous influence as both a zealously devoted member of the upper echelons of the SS and the Chief Editor of his town’s venerated, morally irreproachable newspaper. Her brother is a model of the Hitler Youth and a member of the nascent Luftwaffe. Hetty herself is a loyal acolyte of the Bund Deutscher Madel, or League of German Girls. Her family eschew religion, worshipping Hitler as a deity instead, the adored saviour of their nation and exemplar of patriotic devotion. His every word is cherished, his views regarded as categorical imperatives beyond question and to be adopted and followed with blind obedience. Those who ‘think differently’ are enemies of the state and perfidious traitors deserving nothing but brutal condemnation and equally harsh punishment.

Above young Hetty’s bed hangs a portrait of her idol, Adolf Hitler, who had become Fuhrer in 1934. Mein Kampf has been inculcated into her child-mind as profoundly as her belief in Hitler’s nationalistic virtue and God-given beatification. Her French-born Mutti, or mother, warns her daily ‘against the evil race’ of Jews living amongst the morally righteous Aryan Germans and says, ‘Hetty, stay away from them, stick with good people, like us’. Hetty, an innocent child, is fed on a diet of poison, dripped into her naïve psyche by those around her, coagulating in her mind to form her concept of moral virtue. She is corrupted into complicity and though kind hearted, is unable to recognise the coercive control relentlessly asphyxiating both her conscience and her judgement.

The Nazi party had taken full advantage of the Great Depression and Hitler forced his policy of Lebensraum or ‘living space’ into vulnerable minds as a righteous crusade for territory. Lying at the epicentre of Hitler’s facinorous ambitions was the monomania of his anti-Semitic crusade to rid Germany of its Jewish population. Fein artfully portrays Hetty’s normality as one quite literally reverberating with the toxic, morally enervating ideology of Hitler. We see Hitler’s autocratic, totalitarian credo not merely as a pollutant of one child’s obedient mind, but as an almost ineluctable force carcinogenically devouring a nation’s conscience. Propaganda and violent SS-led oppression pump Hitler’s monstrous beliefs into its zeitgeist,like poison through the veins of a snake bite victim. For those immune to such poison, his malversation, insanity and inhuman cruelty are questioned on pain of death.

Against this backdrop of pervasive beliefs and fears, Hetty’s future is determined by one chance event and the boy who actuates it. Hetty as a young girl is saved from drowning by Walter Keller, a childhood friend of her beloved brother Karl. Unbeknown to Hetty, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Walter is both a Jew and the man destined to become her soul mate. Walter does not merely save Hetty’s young life, his reciprocated love, despite Hetty’s initially perverse akrasia, becomes the causative agent of her moral and spiritual awakening. The novel’s exquisitely constructed plot traces Hetty and Walter’s persecuted love and in so doing, we witness her own tortuous journey from blind allegiance to Nazi ideals, through to her ultimate rejection of these.

Louise Fein
Louise Fein
Hetty must endure a baptism by fire, but her willingness and courage to ‘think differently’ steadily grows, a delicate flame fanned by love to become a conflagration of love-fuelled outrage and indignation. Fein’s plot is articulated by a series of ever more barbaric attempts to extinguish this flame as Hetty’s conscience is viciously assault by inner-conflict, personal jeopardy and the murderous schemes of both her own father and her nation’s Führer.

Hetty’s forbidden love for Walter is the axis upon which the plot turns and Fein unflinchingly charts Hetty’s stumbles and brave strides along the path; her heart, then her mind, compel her to follow. Aspects of this journey make for uncomfortable reading. Whilst Fein confronts her reader with painful truths unadulterated by sentimentality or gratuitous morbidity, she ensures her reader’s own journey through her emotive book is not just endurable, but utterly absorbing and compelling. This alone advertises her as an author of real talent, compassion, and for me, impressive bravery.

Fein gained an MA in creative writing before her debut. It shows. Her use of literary devices is assured, competent and most importantly, hugely effective. The entire story is told through the prism of Hetty’s perspective. Fein has the enemy tell the story as a first person narrative complete with inner monologues advertising the vicissitudes of her conscience, yearnings of her adolescent heart and the emotional turbulence she battles. Fein’s subject matter is often explored through the lens of its victims, not its perpetrators.

In giving us Hetty’s account, Fein has not only elucidated her thematic mother load, but adroitly demonstrated her core message…even ‘people like us’ can be brainwashed. One adolescent woman finds the courage to ‘think differently’ and in so doing refuses to abandon her humanity. Fein demonstrates that whilst many individuals may know right from wrong, it often takes enormous courage to throw off the dehumanising shackles of group think and fight for racial tolerance, human kindness and unsullied, morally sound democracy…for compassion and love.

The novel’s prose is another example of Fein’s authorial talent. In addition to being devoid of flippancy or its clumsy antithesis, Fein subtlety modifies the register of her protagonist’s own expression. Hetty as a child speaks with a child’s voice. As the novel progresses, Hetty’s lexicon, her thinking and her descriptive prowess morphs from the simplistic to the sophisticated. Both the entries she makes into her Anne Frank-like journal and her personal musings, capture the evolution of both a mind and a conscience. This change is seamless, dextrous and utterly convincing. Indeed, the rendering of Hetty is for me the novel’s chief virtue. We are not given a fictional character, we are presented with the verisimilitude of a real person and consequently her experiences are not seen as imagined happenings, but profoundly provocative, individual realities.

Almost without exception, Fein manages to populate her love-story-cum-exposé with wonderfully crafted support characters, each far more than pegs to hang a plot development upon. Hetty’s father is an almost masterful exercise in psychological observation, as is her childhood friend and besotted admirer Tomas. Why the caveat I hear you ask? As with Turgenev’s On The Eve, we have a strong female protagonist, Elena Stakhova who is portrayed with assiduous skill. We also have her lover, Demitri Insarov who is pallid by comparison and overshadowed by the brilliance Turgenev displays in giving us Elena.

So too with Fein. For me, Walter is well drawn and even carefully manufactured, but he is not a triumph of characterisation. This flaw does not undermine the novel’s visceral power, but it does tarnish its artistic value. Perhaps harsh, but given the sublime gift of Hetty to the reader, for me, Walter is an incongruous wraith undeserving of equal praise. Like Insarov, he embodies thematically necessary tropes without actually leaving the page and entering our own psyches. The same is most definitely not true of Hetty…she is likely to remain with the reader long after the book is finished.

Regular readers of my articles will know that I suffer from an allergic disdain towards unnecessary epilogues. People Like Us concludes its story with such a device and therefore engenders in me my typical response. Fein’s book is too good to need closure. However, the Author’s Note is nothing short of brilliant. Within the resolutely honest final pages of the book, Fein lends her imagined story the incalculably valuable quality of authorial authenticity. She also shares her intentions with the reader, and they prove to be both illuminating and emotionally satisfying, given the journey we have been on!

Fein has not only caused her reader to confront the Holocaust, but the contemporaneous dangers we all face as we navigate our way through our own zeitgeist of fake news, racial intolerance and the invidious doctrines of hate speech and disregard for personal truth and liberty. She says, ‘I hope that, if I have done my job well, readers will experience a sense of this tumultuous period in history through the eyes of Hetty and Walter. I hope that readers will also mull on the precariousness of the freedoms and rights we take so much for granted in our own time’.

For this reader, Fein has not done her job well, she has done it superbly! People Like Us is a book of brutal truths, uplifting bravery and both a condemnation of inhumanity and a joyful celebration of mankind’s innate capacity for good…with a little help from love.

People Like Us is published by Head of Zeus