Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Among the Ashes — Reviewed by Dennis Linton

Among the Ashes
by Matthew James McDonald
published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013

At Louvain it was war upon the defenseless, war upon the churches, colleges, shops of milliners and lacemakers; war brought to the bedside and fireside; against women harvesting in the fields, against children in wooden shoes at play in the streets. At Louvain that night the Germans were like men after an orgy.
New York Tribune, 31 August 1914, reported from Louvain by Richard Harding Davis

Louvain in Ruins

The backdrop for Matthew McDonald's novel Among the Ashes is the centuries-old university city of Louvain (or Leuven), Belgium, in August 1914. What happened the night of 25 August and five harrowing days to follow is not in historical dispute. The occupying German forces sacked Louvain, including not only the 15th-century church, St Pierre, but also the contents of the culturally significant University Library. In the end, thousands of homes burned and hundreds of Louvain's residents died. The Germans deported others to serve as forced labor in the factories supplying the war effort. The occupiers terrorized by looting, summary detention, and execution, rape, and wanton destruction of property. What started the retribution is still in dispute. Whether it was sniper fire from the illusive franc-tireurs (irregulars) or paranoid German soldiers seeing the partisans in every window is just one of the historical queries of Among the Ashes.

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McDonald's novel begins as the Second Landsturm Battalion arrives in Louvain for occupation duty in mid August 1914. The train station bustles with reinforcements to bolster the German offensive against staunch Belgian opposition several miles from Louvain. We are introduced to our protagonist, the idealistic Lieutenant Erich von Zandt and his perceived foil, Major Schweder. A verbal disagreement regarding the course of the war while still on the train foreshadows the duel between these two officers as they both attempt to confront the uncertainties of war while still faithfully carrying out their duties.

As the unit occupies the city, Lt von Zandt encounters a loud confrontation between Genevieve, who keeps a chocolate shop, and a group of German soldiers. Erich quickly realizes they do not speak French and she does not speak German, causing a simple request for chocolates to escalate quickly. It is here that Erich meets Genevieve, linking their fates from this point forward.

A few days later Erich is witness to the events of the night of the 25 August and becomes wounded and distraught. After this, the action in the story moves along two entwined themes. First is Erich's idealistic view of events that comes under fire as he diverges from his peers and chain of command. Second, and more important, is an innate humane force that repeatedly compels the lieutenant to become more and more entangled with the saga of Genevieve and her family, symbolic of the fate of Louvain's citizens.

Matthew McDonald clearly did his homework on Louvain. Throughout Among the Ashes, characters and minor story lines reflect all the accounts of that fateful August in Belgium. Interestingly, I find through design or happenstance the beginning of the story is a very fast-paced read although the action is slow. As the pace quickens to almost a fury, the complexities of the plot thickens and my reading became slower and more deliberate. It was as if the author purposely manipulated how I read the story. As the book draws to its conclusion, the reader may still contemplate what really happened, and who really is the hero or antihero, or whether they are all just victims of the tragedy of war.
Louvain Library Today

Reviewer's note: Richard Davis's story in the New York Tribune and other eyewitness accounts ensured the tragedy of Louvain did not go unnoticed and forgotten. The outcry for investigation and war crimes was global and immediate. The Germans conducted an investigation; however, propaganda and contradictory evidence obscured the results. The burning of the historic University library became a rallying cry against an attack destroying culture which remained an inflammatory event throughout the Great War. John Foster Dulles, future U.S. secretary of state, personally added the final edits in Article 247 of the Treaty Versailles, calling for Germany to donate 14 million marks in books for the University Library. American architect William Warren designed the new library as a gift from the American people. Books flowed from all over the world, and Germany met her book donations annually. By 1939 there were over 900,000 books in the rebuilt library. At the onset of World War II, Germany once again invaded neutral Belgium and again destroyed the library and her contents by fire. In history, as in our story, such are the tragedies of war.

Dennis Linton

Photos from Tony Langley's Collection

1 comment:

  1. How terribly sad and ironic that the library was lost again in WWII. But then, the Germans had started burning books on Under den Linden back in 1933.