History, it is said, is written by the winners. But good historical fiction can be written about the losers. L. Annette Binder’s sad, intimate first novel, The Vanishing Sky, conveys a sense of Germany at the tail end of World War II, as seen primarily through the experiences of one family from Heidenfeld, near the city of Würzburg.
Etta and Josef have two sons, Max and Georg. Josef was the head teacher at the local school until he became forgetful and had to retire. Max, a soldier, has been sent to the Eastern Front, where he witnesses unspeakable horrors. Georg, just 15, is enrolled in the Hitler Youth group, where he struggles with his feelings about a blond young colleague named Müller. Georg is also a budding magician and hoards five half-dollar American coins, sent from a relative in Milwaukee, with which to do tricks.
This is autumn 1944, and although the radio and newsreels say the Germans are fighting back, we all know what’s to come. (In the following spring, Würzburg becomes a target for large-scale bombing by the Allies.) At the start of the book, Max is sent home from the front; his parents don’t know why. Soon, his behavior suggests that something is awry with this once strong and active young man. He barely eats, and he sees visions. Soon, he is taken away to a psychiatric hospital. Meanwhile, Etta, an indomitable “Mutti,” seeks out food for the family from neighbors in town and in the country. She tends to Josef, a stick figure who never really comes alive in the book. He is almost a caricature of the German sensibility: rigid and unfeeling.
The most successfully rendered character is Georg, a pudgy, bookish youngster who’s ill-equipped for fighting. He is the book’s Odysseus, his mother its Penelope. Binder creates a believable, lost world with Etta and Georg. The ending is inevitable, and we are left with an overriding—and poignant—sense of loss.