Here are the top ten most frequently asked questions about Those Who Save Us. I hope you find the answers illuminating, but please be aware: some of the answers contain spoilers. I’ve located these toward the bottom of the page.
10. Why don’t you use quotation marks in the novel?
I deliberately chose to omit quotation marks in Those Who Save Us because quotation marks are very lively punctuation. They snag and maintain the reader’s attention by saying, “Psst, let’s eavesdrop on this conversation.” Usually, this is a good thing. But for Those Who Save Us, I wanted an austere, sepia atmosphere, since the novel is so much about the characters being haunted by memory. Quotation marks punctured that atmosphere, so I omitted them. For those readers who missed the quotation marks, good news: My new novel, The Stormchasers, has quotation marks in it.
9. Why is Trudy’s name spelled differently throughout the novel, sometimes with a –y, sometimes with an –ie?
Trudy’s name is spelled with an –ie when she’s a child in Germany, since Trudie/ Trudi is the German diminutive for Gertrude, her given name. Her name is spelled Trudy when she’s an adult in America, signifying that she’s assimilated to her adopted country.
8. Why does the novel have its back-and-forth structure?
A secret: I didn’t write the novel the way it reads. I wrote all of Anna’s story first—she took me six months. I wrote Trudy next; she took me two and a half years. (When they say writing is rewriting, they aren’t kidding.) It would have been too hard to write the novel any other way, to change channels from 1940s Nazi Germany to 1990s Minnesota. When I was done with the two ladies, though, I shuffled their stories together because Anna’s, to me, was more powerful—most war stories have innate intensity. I feared if I put Anna first and Trudy second, Trudy would feel anticlimactic. Many readers now say they like the back-and-forth structure, that it helps build tension and that Trudy’s contemporary sections provide breathing room in what might otherwise be an unbearably intense Anna experience.
7. Can you talk about the title, Those Who Save Us?
The title comes from the pivotal scene on Christmas morning in New Heidelburg when Jack asks whether Anna loved the Obersturmfuhrer, and Anna, trying to answer, wants to say “We come to love those who save us” but can’t speak—because she’s not sure whether she wants the word save or shame. To me, Anna is the ultimate symbol of Stockholm Syndrome, a woman who comes to depend on her captor to the point of loving him. The book’s title speaks to her relationship with the Obersturmfuhrer, which warps her psyche and, to a great extent, her daughter’s.
I also like the title because thematically, the novel is like a big chain letter of saving and being saved: everyone saves everyone else, literally and metaphorically. Max saves Anna, Anna saves Max, Mathilde saves Anna, the Obersturmfuhrer saves Anna, Anna saves Trudy, Jack saves them both, Rainer and Trudy save each other…. But the chain letter also winds heavy links around the characters’ ankles. Being a savior and being saved often comes with very unpleasant burdens, such as survivor’s guilt. I wanted the novel to explore and illustrate that high emotional cost.
6. Does Anna love the Obersturmfuhrer?
I think she does. But since Anna is a sufferer of Stochholm Syndrome, her love for the Obersturmfuhrer is not anything we’d consider healthy or ideal. She herself comments toward the novel’s end that she knows she’s been born with the ability to love but that the Obersturmfuhrer has blighted it; she can’t properly show love to her husband or daughter. The Obersturmfuhrer has trained Anna in his own particular brand of the emotion.
5. Why does Anna take the photo of herself, little Trudy, and the Obersturmfuhrer?
When Anna takes the incriminating photo, she’s not making a conscious decision. She grabs it as a gesture toward the most crucial shaping event in her life thus far: her relationship with the Obersturmfuhrer. She can’t talk about it, and she can’t talk about Germany, but the photo is Anna’s souvenir of the existence she has left behind. When she gets to America she stows the photo in her sock drawer and forgets it; she would be horrified to know that Trudy looks at the photo for years afterwards and draws such a damning conclusion about her parentage.
4. (spoiler alert!) Why doesn’t Anna ever talk? Why doesn’t she explain to Trudy who Trudy’s father is?
We can perhaps understand the reasons Anna doesn’t talk about the Obersturmfuhrer. There are so many, the first being that Anna is a trauma survivor, and many survivors never speak about their experiences. Some of the Jewish survivors I interviewed for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation had not talked about their pasts for over fifty years and, once interviewed, requested their testimonies be sealed until after their deaths. Also, Anna is ashamed of her sexual relationship with the Obersturmfuhrer; she doesn’t have the emotional or psychological vocabulary to explain it even to herself, let alone her daughter. And Anna is of a generation and a culture that doesn’t talk about such things freely.
But why couldn’t Anna tell Trudy, “Your father wasn’t a Nazi; he was a heroic Jewish doctor”?
In short, poor Trudy doesn’t ask the right question. She never asks Anna, “Who was my father?”—because Trudy assumes the Obersturmfuhrer is her father. Instead, Trudy says to Anna, “Tell me about the officer.” And the Obersturmfuhrer is the one topic Anna will never, ever be able to talk about. Sadly, the chill in the women’s relationship is based upon a misunderstanding, as many such situations in life seem to be. They miss each other by inches.
3. (spoiler alert!) Once Trudy finds out the truth, do the two women ever talk about Max and the past? What happens after the book is over?
No, mother and daughter never do talk about the past. Anna will never discuss it, with Trudy or with anyone. This is the vow she’s made to herself. Trudy, however, finally has the peace of knowing who she is. She has Mr. Pfeffer to go to for more detailed answers about her background. And without her daughter’s ceaseless questioning, Anna too can have relative peace.
Here’s what I think happens to them: Anna and Mr. Pfeffer have a lovely courtship that turns into a relationship. He buys a winter house in Florida for her with his mysterious, ill-gotten gains, and every year they fly down there, and every day at 3 PM Anna walks to the ocean in her skirted bathing suit and her bathing cap with the daisies on it and floats around, very quietly, in the water.
Trudy doesn’t get back together with Rainer. But because she’s unburdened herself of her secrets and discovered who she is, Trudy is now able to form a healthy relationship. So after a period of readjustment to get used to her new half-Jewish self—imagine finding out you were not who you thought you were after fifty-odd years—Trudy finds her man.
If you miss my German girls, take heart: in my second novel, The Stormchasers, Trudy and Anna make tiny cameo appearances.
2. Can you explain the Trudy-Rainer relationship? Why did they get together? Why did he leave?
Trudy and Rainer come together because they recognize in each other the same type of survivor—they were both wounded during the Nazi era. Theirs is a complicated relationship—initially love-hate, since what they’re attracted to is really the past in each other. But then Trudy is able to tell Rainer what she’s never been able to confide in anyone: she thinks she’s an SS officer’s daughter. And he tells her what really happened to his brother.
So why does Rainer leave? Rainer has sustained what I think of as “first-degree trauma,” meaning he believes himself to be responsible for the death of another. He truly believes he doesn’t deserve to be happy. Trudy is a “second-degree trauma survivor”; she’s been affected, but she doesn’t blame herself for causing the death of another. Her experience during the Nazi era wasn’t participatory. Trudy’s therefore able to heal once the wound has been lanced. Rainer isn’t. But they will always be in touch and be very special, close friends.
1. When will there be a movie version of Those Who Save Us?
Soon, I hope. Those Who Save Us has been optioned for a film, so my fingers are crossed that it won’t be too long before we see our casting choices for the novel on the silver screen. While I was writing Those Who Save Us, one of my favorite breaks was to walk along the Charles River and cast the characters in my mind; many of you have since played this favorite game with me at book clubs and events. Across the board, Meryl Streep is the favorite for the older Anna. The young Anna? Kate Winslet is a popular choice. I often envision Jodie Foster playing Trudy. And the one casting decision I’ve insisted on all along: for the Obersturmfuhrer, Alec Baldwin. (To see an account of my stalking Mr. Baldwin for the part in real life and how this turned out, please visit the My Date With Alec Baldwin entry on my blog.)