Neighborhood readers talk books, eat cake: ‘Resistance Women’ Part II

What a couple of weeks it’s been. 

Fifty people, including members of the Macy-Huffman and Mossimo-Loughlin families were charged with screwing deserving college applicants out of admission to schools where they may have thrived. It would have been the talk of Sunday shows in the US, but for the white male horror show at a New Zealand mosque whose response to “Welcome Brother” was to kill 49 worshippers at one and seven at another.

The nutcase in the White House spent the week obsessing over a deceased war hero and a subordinate’s living husband. Then, just in time to mess up his weekend, the Mueller Report was finished and released to the Justice Department. 

I’m waiting until we see what We the People and Congress do or don’t get before coming to conclusions about any of it. 

Meanwhile, I promised to report out on my book group’s discussion about Jennifer Chiaverini’s new book, “Resistance Women,” which tells the story of Milwaukee native Mildred Fish Harnack. Here’s the Publishers Weekly review.  

Nine of us were there, and at least one who sent regrets said she was sorry she was going to miss the discussion. She also missed the chocolate roll I made for dessert. There are mentions of home cooking in the book, so I chose one of my grandmother’s recipes.

It’s a mocha frosting, over a rolled-up chocolate genoise spread with whipped topping. My father, sister and I used to fight over the end pieces, because those had more icing.

We started out the way we always do, by asking the host why they chose this book. The short answer is that one of the book’s major characters, Mildred Fish Harnack, grew up in our neighborhood. 

“My kids and Regina’s kids went to High School of the Arts,” Ann said. (The school was called West Division when Mildred attended.) “They give the Mildred Fish Harnack Scholarship, so that’s how I started hearing about her.”

“Until I read this book, I had no idea who she was,” Regina said. 

Betsy chimed in.

“Isn’t there a Mildred Fish Harnack day?” 

“It’s September 16th,” I said. 

From there, we moved into a discussion of the book. 

A couple of us noted that the plot was stronger and more firmly drawn than the characters. Regina, who grew up in Germany, appreciated Chiaverini’s diligence in remaining faithful to the renderings of characters and places with which she is familiar – Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Kollstein

Cynthia commented that, although she’s read “a ton” of books about World War II, she had no idea that there was a German resistance. While some of us were aware of that, we all agreed that we’d learned a lot from Chiaverini’s book. I hadn’t previously considered how many ordinary Germans, Aryan Christians with nothing to fear, had put their own safety on the line to stand up to the Nazi regime and its enablers. 

Knowing how it was going to end also made me a reluctant reader. Mildred was the only American woman whose death was directly ordered by Hitler; most of the other members of her resistance cell were also executed. That said, Chiaverini made things engaging enough to keep me reading. I learned a lot about life for ordinary Germans during that time period. 

Needless to say, there were a fair number of comparisons with what went down in the book and the current state of affairs in the US. 

None of us are particularly shy when it comes to acknowledging the elephant in the room. Bottom line: Germany’s slide from a democratic government to totalitarianism is looking a lot less academic these days. 

The big question, of course, was this: Did what the men and women of that resistance cell do make any difference at all in defeating the Nazis? The meta-question, of course, being, what we can do now, in this moment.

Krys and Betsy nailed it with their responses. Krys cited the Butterfly Effect – that minor changes at one point in time can result in major changes later on. 

Betsy’s observation was less future-oriented. 

“They had to choose how they were going to live as people of integrity where that (activity) was going on,” she said. “And it was clear to me that they chose to remain and whether what they did made a difference (more globally), it made a difference to them.” 

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