Hitler Had Food Tasters, Anne Frank Lived and Maud Baum Wanted to Be Heard

By Rosella Postorino

It’s 1943. Ten women are gathered at a long wooden table, plates piled high with buttered string beans, roasted peppers, rice and peas. But it’s not a feast. The women are food tasters, making sure the dinner cooked for Hitler has not been poisoned.

“My mother used to say eating was a way of battling death,” recalls the main character, Rosa Sauer, in Postorino’s engrossing novel. Those words capture the paradox at the heart of this story, which is based on the life of Margot Wölk.

Rosa, whose father died a year and a half after the war started and whose mother was killed in a bombing raid, has just arrived from Berlin to live in the countryside with her new in-laws. Her husband, Gregor, who is in the German Army and fighting on the Eastern Front, is pleased with the arrangement, knowing that his parents will look after his young wife. But then SS officers come to tell Rosa that her services are needed at Hitler’s secret headquarters.

Three times a day, she and the other women are brought to the Wolfsschanze, the Wolf’s Lair, to eat the Führer’s meals before he does. Some of the women are proud to serve, others aren’t sure what to think. Questions of loyalty not just to the Nazis but to one another boil just below the surface as the women form uneasy bonds. They know that they are lucky to have food to eat during wartime, but they also know it comes at a cost, and they struggle with that.

“The ability to adapt is the greatest resource of human beings,” Rosa says. “But the more I adapted, the less I felt human.”

“At the Wolf’s Table” is Postorino’s first novel to be translated into English from her native Italian. Her ability to beautifully convey feelings of guilt, shame, love and remorse in a single gesture is a sign that we will be hearing more from her.

Translated by Leah Janeczko
275 pp. Flatiron. $26.99.

[ What if the powerful (and the paranoid) started using official food tasters again? ]

By Elizabeth Letts

“Finding Dorothy” introduces Maud Baum, the daughter of the 19th-century women’s suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage and the wife of L. Frank Baum, the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

In one of the novel’s opening scenes, Maud, desperate to protect her late husband’s legacy, talks her way onto the M-G-M set of “The Wizard of Oz.” Having just heard the young Judy Garland sing an early version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Maud is concerned. The song is “lovely,” but “there’s not enough wanting in it.” She has a point.

The book then flashes back to Maud’s childhood in Fayetteville, N.Y., her experience as one of the first women to attend Cornell University, her life with Frank and their four sons. The narrative switches back at various intervals to 1938 Hollywood and a friendship that develops between Maud and Judy, but it’s the history of Maud’s life with Frank that is so appealing, even if it drags on a bit. Frank was a dreamer, and financial hardships, illness and lots of household uprooting marked their life together. The story of Maud’s relationship with her older sister is especially poignant, and Letts deftly imagines Maud’s niece as the possible inspiration for Dorothy, throwing in references that made their way into Frank’s classic children’s book and the movie. (Hint: A rainbow was involved.)

As with all great historical fiction, the allure of “Finding Dorothy” is the curiosity it inspires. Readers will find themselves wanting to know more, wondering what is fact and what is Letts’s imagination. In this case, Letts has brought an unknown woman to life in an engaging and thorough novel.

351 pp. Ballantine. $28.

By David R. Gillham

Where historical fiction can fail is in trying to reimagine the life of a person whom too many readers think they know well. Such is the case with Gillham’s novel, which poses the question: What if Anne Frank had survived the Holocaust?

The novel opens at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, where Anne “lies sprawled among the dead who carpet the frozen mud flats, time slipping past, her thoughts dissolving.” Her heart flexes. “A beat. Another beat.” Until: “Slowly. Very slowly, she pries open her gluey eyelids till the raw white sunlight stings. She is alive.”

But here’s the thing. Practically everyone who has read “The Diary of a Young Girl” (more than 30 million copies of the book have been sold) has adored and even found ways to identify with the girl in the secret annex. And they have been devastated by her death, moved to tears by what might be the saddest ending they have ever read.

Those 30 million readers, however, have their own thoughts about what Anne would have been like had she survived. It’s fair to say that Gillham’s Anne is probably not the person they had in mind.

Gillham does a good job of describing a young woman struggling with survivor’s guilt, haunted by the horrific conditions she endured and the death of her mother and sister. But Anne’s interactions with her father, who hides her diary from her, are annoying and leave the reader disappointed with this girl they once loved. The last thing you want is to leave a book like this thinking that the legacy of hope in your beloved Anne Frank’s life lies in her death, but that’s exactly what comes to mind on the final page of Gillham’s book.

405 pp. Viking. $26.

Susan Ellingwood is an editor on the Books desk at The Times.

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