An exceptional new World War II novel: “The Vanishing Sky” by L. Annette Binder

I found much needed escape reading this World War II story. Every night it allowed me to thoughtfully travel to another time when, like these times, normal didn’t exist. There’s comfort in that now, at least for me, reading about resilient characters and hardship endured. L. Annette Binder’s lyric prose demands nothing of us other than to slip into this world she’s created – and done so with exceptional insight and deep compassion — to discover not the drama of the war’s violence and horror, rather how it plays out on an ordinary German family in an ordinary town far from Allied bombing and a Nazi presence. Her fictional characters live under a wartime shroud, but they can look out their windows to unblemished blue skies and plan a relatively routine day.

There are many deprivations, no soap or wool or butter in Heidenfeld, but Etta Huber adjusts, and then there are windows to be washed, doorsteps to be swept, church services to attend, and fishermen to haggle with by the river. She stands in line for watery milk and entertains her friends at home with wine made from local berries. Her withdrawn, irritable husband obsesses over imagined glory to be had by a soldier. He’s an unlikable, patriotic man, bitter that his chronic forgetfulness bans him from contributing to the war effort. Josef feels cheated that he failed to earn medals during his World War I service, and now he resents his eldest son’s bravery.

That would be Max who, at the novel’s beginning, returns home, the official letter not explaining why. His first words off the train are, “I’m thirsty,” and later, by his moaning, his anguished falling to his feet, headaches, and wanderings, it’s apparent Max isn’t the same. It is 1945. He speaks of Stalingrad and “other places” where “they dug their own graves and nobody tried to run,” which Etta doesn’t understand, but we do from our historical knowledge of Nazi Germany. During a church service, Max reaches up with his hands and calls out Mea maxima culpa. The disruption draws dangerous attention to himself.

Etta knows she must keep Max out of the public eye, hidden from Dr. Kleissner making his rounds for no reason other than to take away “the weak ones.” One evening, when she arrives home, Max is gone, and Josef cannot explain where the men took him. Binder writes of Josef’s lies and foolishness with perfect crafting of misdirected male bravado. His character nicely textures the story’s melancholy with its hard edge, something that fails to move Etta. She doesn’t let her anger toward Josef win, knowing there’s no value in it. Not now. Not in this troubled world. I wanted her to let loose her fury, but then I understood, and could feel, that such a reaction wouldn’t be authentically hers.

She lived in a new world now, a world she didn’t know, and the time for tears had gone and the time for softness, too. Be resolute, she told herself. Be hard like the rock and quick like the water so she could bring her boy back home.

Georg, the younger son, with his brown eyes and overweight body, lacks favor at the far-away Hitler Youth School. He’s befriended, though, by the popular Müller, “god of the dormitory,” who one evening discovers Georg privately performing magic tricks with his beloved American half dollars gifted to him and Max by an uncle in Milwaukee. Georg’s magic gives him something safe to hold onto, something from home and not of the war. Müller neither mocks it nor betrays him, and from here on the two work side-by-side in a Hitler Youth effort to create a formidable wall as barrier to Allied tanks. Georg needs reasons for why things happen, including why he, a 15-year-old boy who loves his mother and magic tricks, must be a soldier. He follows a powerful urge to save himself and perilously journeys home to his mother.

Etta and Georg are the true heroes of this seductive story. They act on human truth that pulls more strongly than the fear of what could happen to them: Etta knows she must understand what’s wrong with Max, find him, and take care of him at all costs; Georg knows giving his life for his country is empty valor with the Allied victory near. There’s something else about Georg that additionally informs the deep meaning of this story. It has to do with the sleight of hand that makes the coins disappear. The magic trick illustrates the paradox he recognizes in the disappearance of the soldiering and the bombs with desertion, and a return to his peaceful, rural home in Heidenfeld.

Binder throughout never leans into the war’s death and violence. It’s enough to let Max represent that horror by his madness and Georg by the wall and the boys that get called up and die. The book’s dramatic power lies instead in the reasons the boys come home, the why of it for both very different, and in Etta’s yearning that her endangered sons return to her kitchen table, the boys as they used to be. Binder so superbly achieves this humanness with words of unpretentious, poetic, and resonant storytelling.

The house was empty, and [Etta] went to Max’s room and made his bed so it would be ready when he came back. She smoothed the down comforter and fluffed his pillow, and she went into Georg’s room, too, and straightened the books on his shelf, the Latin and the Greek grammars he loved best, and the snow had started to fall, small needling flakes that hit the windows. Just beyond the trees the fishermen were by the banks, and how could the river flow when her boys were gone? It wasn’t her world, this strange place. It wasn’t any world she’d ever known and the men were out there angling and the ladies with their purses and the sun would set and it would rise again and her boys would still be gone.

All things come together to create an engrossing story — the seductive atmosphere, the realistic and relatable characters, the embracing prose, and a compassionate tone that makes us tremble for what will happen to Etta, Georg, and Max as their fates flawlessly wrap up and become remembered beyond the last page. So, too, that paradox of war and the disappeared coin.

Things were fine in Ochsenfurt and Klingenberg and farther out by Heidenfeld. Things were just as they’d always been. The sky was dark there, and the stars shone, and people were sleeping in their beds.

And that’s where I felt my comfort. Every day, aware of the pandemic, the constantly changing restrictions and mandates, the rising infections, the hovering uncertainty and anxiety, not knowing what lies ahead; and yet, the calm inside my home, the birds singing at the feeders, the dogs wanting to be walked, the ever-present pile of books to be anticipated and enjoyed. I read The Vanishing Sky feeling admiration for Etta and hope for Georg, that he makes it home. I loved this book.