Book Review: Bertha: Shine like the Dawn by Lisa M. Hutchison.
Publication Date: 24th May 2019 Publisher: Word Alive Press Page Length: 282 Pages Genre: Historical Biographies
Bertha: Shine Like the Dawn is the true story of Bertha, the author’s great-grandmother, born into relative wealth and comfort in 1860 Germany, orphaned as a baby, and begrudgingly raised by two sets of grandparents. Violated by her uncle at seventeen, Bertha becomes pregnant and is quickly married off to a man beneath her standing. After enduring years of domestic violence and forced pregnancies, she finally walks away with four young children and with only her grandmother in Berlin for support. Once there, Bertha finds love with a mysterious man—but will it last? Bertha, who lives through the turn of the century, the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, the Spanish Flu, The Great Depression, and the Second World War, accepts whatever life gives her, with courage and passion, but most of all with love. This is a tender romance, filled with compassion and many unexpected turns in life. Bertha experiences unbelievable trials, tribulations, and triumphs, as well as great love and great loss. Readers will cheer for her, cry for her, and love with her.
“You should find yourself a husband…”
Everyone was telling Bertha that it was time to find herself a husband, but she was only sixteen years old, and she wanted to live a little first before settling down to a life of domestic bliss.
But, like her mother before her, Bertha was not destined for a simple, trouble-free life. Instead, by the age of seventeen, she is forced to marry a man who she does not know, and despite trying her very best, Bertha soon becomes resigned to the fact that her husband, Karl Hoffmann, will never love her, nor will he treat her with the respect that she deserves. There is no escape for Bertha, for even if she did flee the marriage, Karl would still be her legal guardian until she reached the age of twenty-one.
Unfortunately, there is no one for Bertha to turn to. Even the Pastor sided with her husband—after all, it is a husband’s right to discipline his wife as he sees fit, and there is no such thing as rape in marriage. To save herself, and her children, Bertha realises that she cannot wait until she is twenty-one, she needs to flee now. But, will Bertha have the courage to do so? And what kind of life can she expect to live as a single mother in Germany in the late 19th / early 20th Century?
From a desperately distressing death at sea to the last weeks of World War II, Bertha: Shine like the Dawn by Lisa M. Hutchison is the unforgettable true story of Bertha Holtzmann.
There are no words that can encompass how great this novel is. Within a mere 282 pages, Hutchison has penned a truly extraordinary story of unimaginable hardship, abuse, grief, and joy, but above everything else, this is a story about love. Set in an era of industrial growth and violent warfare, Hutchison has taken her readers on a voyage of emotional discovery. This story, this wonderfully compelling narrative, grabbed me from the opening sentence and left me gasping, reaching for the tissues, as I noted that final, devastating full stop. Hutchison demands every conceivable emotion from her readers, and such writing made this book next to impossible to put down.
This story maps the life of Bertha Holtzmann from birth to death. This seemingly insignificant child grows up to be a resilient fighter who strongly believes in family and never gives up hope that she will find true love one day. Bertha was a woman who I instantly connected with. The hardship she faced, the cruelty, and the courage she demonstrated throughout her life only made me love her all the more. Bertha is a wonderful example of the resilience of the human soul. Her quick sense of humour, her patient understanding of her children’s choices as they grow and become independent and her unconditional love made her a woman before her time. I can understand why Hutchison felt so compelled to tell her great-grandmother’s story and the scrupulous care she has taken to depict Bertha and the historical setting, as well as the historical controversy of the era, makes this book one in a million. Bravo, Ms Hutchison. Bravo indeed.
The historical detailing in this novel is staggering. Having tutored modern history for many years, I, like many avid readers of Historical Fiction / Historical Biographies set in the early half of the 20th Century have the misfortune, one might call it, of hindsight, and while Bertha and her family bravely stepped forward into a rapidly changing world, I felt a growing pit of dread in my stomach as I knew where this story was going to lead and the hardships that this family would be forced to endure. Many times, I found myself holding my breath, hoping for the best, hoping that the persecution and war would pass this family by unharmed.
Bertha is a heroine that I could not help but love. She made me laugh, she made me cry, but above everything else she earned my respect—who else would be brave enough to threaten the Gestapo armed only with a black umbrella when they tried to enter her flat? There was simply nothing about this feisty woman that I did not adore. Her sense of humour, her determination not to become bitter at the hand fate had dealt her, and her courage in the face of significant emotional loss, made her an unforgettable heroine. Bertha’s story deserved to be told, and I am sure she would be proud of the way Hutchison has portrayed her.
The historical research that has gone into this novel is staggering. Hutchison covers over 80 years of history, and as each era slips into the next, there come new challenges, new dangers. The historical accuracy, the sense of realism throughout makes this novel not only shamelessly compelling, but it really felt as if I had stepped back in time. The sinking of the Titanic, the horrors of the First World War, the 1918 flu pandemic, the terrible terms of The Treaty of Versailles and what that meant for Germany, the hyperinflation of 1923, the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, The Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the horrors of the Second World War are depicted with a great deal of skill and diligence. Such emotional writing makes this book an enthralling read.
There is a huge cast of characters in this novel, and each character has a story to tell. I adored the depiction of Oma Anna. Anna is very much like her granddaughter, she is a strong woman, not because it is in her nature to be so but because she had not been given a choice. She is the rock which Bertha depends upon. She is also a wise council, and a trusted friend. I thought Anna’s depiction was sublime.
There are several antagonists in this story, as there are so often in life, and Bertha has the misfortunate of being related to one and married to another. These two despicable men could have utterly vanquished Bertha, but her instinct for survival meant she dared to take the risk and leave an unbearably volatile situation. Once Bertha takes life into her own hands, once she has the courage and the conviction to take control of her own life, that was when she really came into her own. The antagonists may have done their very best to weaken her, to break her, but their cruelty somehow made her all the stronger.
Bertha: Shine like the Dawn by Lisa M. Hutchison is a truly remarkable book. It is astoundingly ambitious and in all ways an absolute triumph. This is a book that deserves to be read again and again.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde. The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Lisa Hutchison is a Canadian author, living with her husband in Stratford, Ontario. She has penned two very successful books, Pieces of Us and Iron Annie and a Long Journey. Both are books based on first-person experiences and both are compelling accounts of her own life. Her latest book, Bertha, retraces the life of her great-grandmother. Lisa was born in Germany, immigrated with her parents as a child to Canada, and grew up mainly in Toronto. She has a degree in Commerce and has worked mostly in the financial field. Since retirement she has, together with her husband, Robert, travelled the world. She is also an active volunteer at the local hospital, church, and retirement homes. Lisa has always loved to write essays, short stories, poetry, music lyrics, and journals, and was instrumental in setting up and administrating her church's monthly newsletter for many years. While conducting research into her family's history, she found enough material to write Iron Annie and a Long Journey, a biography on her parents' life. Lisa and Robert have three adult children and six grown grandchildren. When they're not in Stratford, they can be found in Portugal, their favourite winter retreat.
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