Today help me welcome CF Yetmen, whose post WW II novel picks up where George Clooney’s new Monuments Men movie leaves off. In this exclusive personal essay from CF, she discloses to us why she wrote her novel and what it was like transitioning from nonfiction writer to debut novelist.
The idea for The Roses Underneath came to me when my interest in my grandmother’s real-life story converged with my interest in the work of the Monuments Men. In 1945, grandmother was a 28 year-old German woman with a five year-old daughter. She was displaced, separated from her husband and her entire family, homeless, and destitute. Meanwhile, also in 1945, the US Army Monuments Men (officially the US Army Monuments Fine Arts and Archives Division) had in their possession the most valuable art collection, probably in the history of the world. George Clooney’s movie The Monuments Men, and the book it is based on, described the race to save that art during the war. I was interested in what happened after the war was over.
I was also interested in the experience of women in war, especially those on the losing side, beyond what we hear on the news. How do they care for their kids, get food, keep their families safe, and deal with the necessities of life? What do ordinary women do to survive the horror of a war like the ones the Nazis waged on Europe? World War II is the most studied and storied of all wars, but there is very little information on what every day German women went through. Not the heroes like Sophie Scholl—who was executed at age 20 for her resistance—and not the true believers—sadistic concentration camp guards or icy Nazi wives we see in the movies.
My grandmother only talked to me about her experiences in small snippets, like once was when I was spending the summer with her before I went to work in Munich. It was the same year the Berlin wall came down, so we took a trip to the small East German town, where she had lived during the war. Standing on a small hillside she pointed down at the road below. “This is where I was standing when the Americans rolled in,” she said, the memories rolling over her. As I stared at the empty street—seemingly frozen in a cold-war time warp—I tried to picture what that might have looked like. It was the first time I remembered thinking about the war happening there, in that place, in a country that I loved.
My grandmother never spoke about it again, but her thoughts revealed themselves in her actions. She harbored a life-long hatred for politicians, for example. I also remember once waking up at her house to silent, snow-covered streets. As I lay in bed enjoying the quiet, my grandmother jumped up and looked out the window. The silence I enjoyed only reminded her of the war, of people hiding in their homes, of impending doom, and she hated it.
I didn’t ever dare ask any of her friends—the ladies who came for coffee and cake—about their past. When I was researching this book, my mother very gently introduced the subject with the very few who are left (my grandmother herself passed away 15 years ago). At that point in 2010, some 70 years removed, they were ready to tell me. Sitting in comfortable living rooms sipping coffee from pretty cups, they told me horrifying stories that gave me nightmares. Stories of small acts of courage and unspeakable loss, of terror and devastation. And surviving.
When I learned about the work of Monuments Men, the setting for my novel suddenly revealed itself. The story of Anna Klein unfolded from there. I hope Anna grew into one of those sweet, old ladies like the ones I knew. They were survivors who were able to recapture some meaning and beauty in the life that came after. It is for them that I wrote The Roses Underneath.
About the book
It is August 1945 in Wiesbaden, Germany. With the country in ruins, Anna Klein, displaced and separated from her beloved husband, struggles to support herself and her six-year old daughter Amalia. Her job typing forms at the Collecting Point for the US Army’s Monuments Men is the only thing keeping her afloat. Charged with securing Nazi-looted art and rebuilding Germany’s monuments, the Americans are on the hunt for stolen treasures. But after the horrors of the war, Anna wants only to hide from the truth and rebuild a life with her family. When the easy-going American Captain Henry Cooper recruits her as his reluctant translator, the two of them stumble on a mysterious stash of art in a villa outside of town. Cooper’s penchant for breaking the rules capsizes Anna’s tenuous security and propels her into a search for elusive truth and justice in a world where everyone is hiding something.
In her debut novel C.F. Yetmen tells a story of loss and reconciliation in a shattered world coming to terms with war and its aftermath.
About the author
An early job in Germany as Editorial Assistant for Prestel Books taught C.F. Yetmen how to layout a Kandinksy and write about architecture. In addition to writing for architects across America, C.F. Yetmen is co-author of The Owner’s Dilemma: Driving Success and Innovation in the Design and Construction Industry (2010). The Roses Underneath is her first novel. Visit C.F. at http://www.cfyetmen.com.
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