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  • Undesirables
  • Rosalie Calabrese (bio)
Honest Deceptions. Hannah S. Hess. Caravel Books. 280pages; paper, $18.00.

As is now generally recognized, Adolph Hitler envisioned an (erroneously-named) Aryan master race, free of undesirables. These included Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals as well as the frail of body or mind; all to be eliminated.

Honest Deceptions, a first novel by Hannah S. Hess, tells the story of a decision made by two German doctors, one Christian and one Jewish, concerning the probable fate of their two-year-old sons as Hitler’s programs are put into action, and how the results play out for the survivors during and after the war.

The basic premise is this: Peter is extremely bright for his age; Willy is slow-witted. Both of them are blond and blue-eyed; neither one is circumcised. After some soul-searching by the parents, the identities of the two boys, Willy and Peter, are switched. They are each given the other’s name and made to believe that their parents are also switched. Willy, the new Peter, is euthanized; Peter, the new Willy, grows up to be a doctor, working at the same German hospital where the man whom he believes is his father practices.

Meanwhile, Margot, the Jewish older sister, brought up by her mother in New York, has a burning passion to find out what happened to her father and brother, who were unable to get out of Germany in time and are presumably dead. Now that her mother has died, Margot, who is on her way to becoming a surgeon, manages to get a residency in the same German hospital where her father’s friend and his “son” now practice. To do this, however, she has to leave her fiancée back in the States. As the story swings back and forth from 1939 to 1964, with stops along the way at 1940, 1945 and 1963 (not necessarily in that order), we get a clear picture of the ongoing difficulties in the search for answers.

This might sound like pretty heavy reading, but it’s not. In fact, although it’s not quite a page-turner, it’s quite an easy read and, for the most part, an enjoyable one. I could quibble with some of the stilted phrases or the very American colloquialisms that seem out of place but, although they stop the action momentarily, they are readily forgiven. I also have to admit that I had to double check from time to time as to where or when the current scene was taking place.

Despite these interferences, the attention Ms. Hess pays to detail brings these characters alive and allows us to visualize the settings. Some of the characters – including the minor ones – are sharply drawn, as are buildings, rooms, and their furnishings. But, although we are told about every outfit worn by Margot and John, they remained faceless for me, which I found rather unsettling. On the other hand, the sex scenes and bits of humor scattered throughout the book are nicely written.

The first smile came to me in Chapter 1 when John is says to Margot, “You can share my parents. Hell, you can have my parents.” However, that italicized word was one of the poorer choices in the typographical design of the book. The most blatant annoyance to me is that several words are printed in bold, as if we wouldn’t understand the meaning without help. But I digress.

John isn’t exactly comic relief, but another of his amusing lines comes when talking about his parents’ house: “It’s large – but it’s pretentious.” Later on, when Margot has found a place to live in Germany, “The landlady had pulled herself up to her full five feet, and Margot had half expected her to salute.” A more sensitive observation that I particularly appreciated occurs when Margot and the now-grownup Willy are walking down a German street on a summer evening in 1963: “There were young couples in jeans and tee shirts, arms entwined, elderly women in sensible shoes and hats, walking sedately. There seemed to be few elderly men.”

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