I am reading Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich by Alison Owings. Some of you may be aware that Alison is my neighbor and my mother's poker buddy. I grew up thinking my mother was a great poker player, which apparently she is, relative to the person who gave that testimony, my father. My father is not known for his "game face". I have no doubt my mother could make a mean poker player, as she is analytical, competitive, and can be quite controlled when circumstances call for it. However, I doubt her attention span compared to someone like Alison. Alison is simultaneously focused and funny. She is the kind of redhead who can wear puce and look hot. Alison is interested in everything. This we have in common.
In getting ready to blog about Frauen (Alison: can I use blog as a verb now?) I googled it and read some reviews. There is a bit of academic snitting out there about Alison's methods and her focus - all of which I think is irrelevent because she lays out her intentions solidly in the introduction. It is not a historical document, it is an exploration into what one woman might tell another about her experience. It is completely qualitative - and as other reviewers have mentioned, it may be exactly this approach that gave Alison her access to these women and their very personal stories. Reading Frauen is like getting to know somebody. First you learn the things they want you to know, then later the things they know about themselves but would rather keep secret, and eventually you learn things they don't know about themselves. Alison has been through this process with the 29 women in the book (and more who are not profiled in Frauen) and takes the reader through the same experience. Of course this is conversational - Alison herself is the protagonist of this story - and although the interviews do not appear in the book in the chronological order in which they were conducted, the reader definitely experiences the journey of discovery along with the interviewer.
To answer the critics, (if I may paraphrase them, although they clearly don't like that) is this a good way of learning about history? The obvious (and glib) answer is that this is an enjoyable and entertaining read that many people will pick up and therefore many people will learn about history - as opposed to a more quantitative survey. But to be more direct, the book does not present a history of events, only attempts to draw a portrait of what a certain group of people felt like. If you ask my grandmother Faye Mendenhall Daniel O'Neil about Earl Warren Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, she will tell you he was a charming man about the neighborhood who would walk little Johnny Warren around the block in a stroller while she walked little Barbie (future poker player). If you ask elsewhere (in this case, wikipedia), you will find out that he was the California governor responsible for internment of Japanese-Americans in that state during WWII, that he was surprisingly liberal in the view of Eisenhower who appointed him to the Court, and that he presided over Brown vs. Board of Education among other historic cases. If you mention this to Grammy, she will be surprised that you have heard of her old neighbor. I am quite sure that she would have been aware of all these events at the time they occured - but didn't mentally link them to Warren? Who's to say. My Grammy is like Forest Gump - an accidental witness to the big events of history. I'll leave it to my brother - the budding journalist - to write about her.
By the same token, I get the feeling that Alison does not believe certain statements of her subjects, whether about historical events themselves (which she explicitly tests) or about their contemporary knowledge of the events. This is especially vivid with regards to exactly when the women became aware of the gassing of Jews and the real purpose of concentration camps. At least one of the interviewees supports Alison's consistent message that "Volk" (ordinary people) must have known, and known earlier, than they admit. I'm on woman 22 or so now, I am looking forward to see whether Alison makes a go of abstracting the body of interviews at the end of the work (I am not a skip-aheader). I'll let you know how it turns out.
PS: Lest Dad start protesting that he is in fact an excellent poker player and had to hold back to avoid creating a socially awkward situation by winning all the time, I remind him that he has in the past attributed his superior poker skills to the fact that "he didn't like the beer they brought" and therefore, was clearly not doing the sportsmenlike thing by sharing the handicap.