In Stones from the River, set in wartime Germany, in the fictional town of Burgdorf, Ursula Hegi sets the theme of her book early on through the protagonist’s mother. She allows her young daughter, Trudi, to run her fingers across the scars on her thigh, feeling the grains of gravel beneath, telling her, “People die if you don’t love them enough.” The grains of gravel paralleled the stones in the river (hence the title) – they were sins people committed that, like the ripples in water from a stone being cast, showed their scar on the surface for only a short time and then disappeared, but the sins remain beneath, unseen. Already one can see the relevance this will have regarding the upcoming events in the novel and the atrocities of the Third Reich.
By the end, after the Holocaust has come to light and Germany begins to put itself back together, the theme of the stones in the river is once again manifested. People try to forget or pretend that the atrocities of war did not happen, though beneath the surface the effects are still potent and permanent. Through this symbolism we see that it was people’s lack of empathy and compassion that allowed such a horror to occur.
Stones from the River offers the reader insight and understanding into this important era of history, whose hometown experiences of prejudice, denial, and hysteria are not entirely unique. The novel traces the hardships of several families in Trudi’s small town with varying degrees of emotional impact. The story slumps and meanders at times, particularly in the beginning. Patience is required. The story’s greatest strength lies in the middle, and it is this portion that makes the endeavor worthwhile.