.

.

November 24, 2019

Forty Autumns



Forty Autumns by Nina Willner
Nonfiction - Memoir
2016 William Morrow
Finished on November 18, 2019
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.


Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.


In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.


A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family.


I recommended Forty Autumns to my book group after learning about it from a friend who also read it for her book group. She raved about the book and said her group had a wonderful discussion, so I was sold. World War II is a subject I'm drawn to, but I didn't know much about this part of Germany's history when I picked up the book. Like most major events in history such as JFK's assassination, Apollo 11 moon landing, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion and 9/11 (the sort that we can recall where we were when we first heard that shocking news), I remember when I first heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was busy with work and family life and while I knew it was a historical event, I didn't fully understand the enormous impact it had for those German families who had been separated from their loved ones for decades. Nina Willner's narrative sheds light on the authoritarian rule and repression by the East German government, as well as sharing her family's individual story of fear and uncertainty, including the separation of family members over the course of forty years. Willner's poignant memoir is well written and informative, but sadly, I didn't love it. It started off very strong and readable, but began to drag halfway through. I felt that the author kept her readers at a distance, in spite of sharing such a personal story, and I might have enjoyed it better had it been presented as a historical novel rather than a memoir.

10 comments:

  1. I picked this up because I saw a few people rave about it and felt pretty much the same way you did. It's a great story but it didn't feel all that personal.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kathy, good to know I'm not alone in my opinion. It really didn't feel personal, which is odd for a memoir. Maybe it would have been better had it been written by Hannah rather than Nina.

      Delete
  2. Seems like it had the potential to be a good discussion book. I hadn't heard of it.

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! I will be busy next few days preparing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Diane, I was unable to attend the book discussion, but hope to chat about it a little bit at our next meeting.

      I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, too. There will be eight of us this year, but we're keeping it somewhat simple. My husband had gall bladder surgery a couple of weeks ago and my mom is recovering from pneumonia. It's been an exhausting few weeks...

      Delete
  3. This was my favorite nonfiction rea last year... absolutely loved the audio production! I think the narration gave it a more personal/immediate feel for me. I'd never considered this aspect of the Wall and found the story fascinating. Wonder if the audio made the difference for me...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. JoAnn, I read your review and wish I had gone with the audio. I think that experience would have been more positive than reading it on a Nook. Did you track down a print copy to see all the photographs? There were more than just a few and I enjoyed putting faces to names.

      Delete
    2. Les - I never did find a print copy... neither of my libraries had the book and I never thought to check in B&N. But I now have the county-wide FL system to check. Fingers crossed!

      Delete
    3. I think you'll enjoy seeing the pictures. I hope you can find a copy of the book. Good luck!

      Delete
  4. What a shame to hear this one didn't wow. I am curious about this one because of course having traveled to Germany so often I've gone to border stations where those from the West could cross into the East and it's awful to think of families not being able to be together so I do like to read about this. Maybe I'll still give it a go one of these days.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Iliana, I'm not sorry I read this, especially since I learned some history from it, but it didn't knock my socks off. If you do read it, I would go with the audio. I hear it's very good.

      Delete

I may not answer your comments in a timely fashion, but I always answer. Check back soon!