FBOTU Book Club: “The German” Discussion

Welcome, FBOTU Book Club members and avid readers everywhere! I hope you enjoyed our latest selection, The German, by Lee Thomas. I’m going to share a quick recap and a few thoughts of my own, then open it up to all of you. Feel free to share your own thoughts, insights or questions in the comments section below. Thanks for taking part in the FBOTU Book Club! A new selection will be announced in a couple of weeks. If you haven’t read The German yet, check out the announcement, then join us here when you’re ready to discuss.

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, establishing a pipeline into enemy territory and forcing the Germans to fight on a second front. It is the month immediately following this development that Lee Thomas explores in The German, though not in the trenches of Europe or the Pacific Theater of Operations. Instead, the global conflict plays itself out on a smaller, though no less deadly scale in the small town of Barnard, Texas.

Barnard is home to a significant population of refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Their cordial, but somewhat uneasy coexistence with the locals is suddenly threatened when a brutal killer begins preying on the young men of the town. The only clues he leaves are cryptic notes written in German. The ensuing mystery unfolds, as told though the eyes of three of Barnard’s residents: Sheriff Tom Rabbit; a young boy named Tim; and his neighbor, Ernst Lang, a man who not only escaped Germany, but possibly death itself. 

Author Lee Thomas uses the historical period and rural setting of The German to great effect, crafting a haunting and engrossing mystery fueled by fear and paranoia. The supernatural element, which feels somehow disconnected from the narrative at first, ultimately underscores a tragic lesson in identity and personal responsibility. While American soldiers ostensibly fight for freedom and liberation abroad, the systematic oppression of “the other” runs rampant back home.  

As a German immigrant, a homosexual, and something else even he can’t explain, Ernst plays the part of dutiful neighbor and immigrant, but secretly rails against the hypocrisy. On revealing his lack of interest in women, he writes, “In the beer halls and brothels and cabarets back home, such an admission surprised no one. It was understood without explanation, but those were places of honesty. Not like this place. These people and their masks, their roles. A man is this. A woman is that. In this place, there is John Wayne and there is Vivien Leigh. They are stories they’ve created for themselves. The truth of them lies buried deep: layered clothing against the cold.” It’s no coincidence that the killer dons a Stetson hat and a duster, creating a caricature of an American icon as he preys on the country’s most valuable asset: young men of fighting age.

Ultimately, as the town’s paranoia reaches a fever pitch, fear and violence compound, resulting in tragedy. As Ernst tries to explain to Tim earlier in the book, once you remove someone’s humanity, it’s much easier to justify killing him. “The Nazis have done the same to the Jew and the gypsy. I watched it happen,” he says. “They need to find things to hate, so that they won’t hate themselves.”   

I’m anxious to hear what you all thought of the book, and if you enjoyed it as much as I did. You certainly don’t have to agree with me, but please keep the conversation polite.

Here are a few questions to help kick start our discussion, but you should feel free to chat about whatever you like. Thanks!

What is the significance of the supernatural element in the story?
Tim’s relationship with Ernst changes several times throughout the book, from admiration to fascination to fear. To what extent do you think that’s fueled by his own identity issues?
How did each of the narrators/points of view contribute to the story? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story in this way?
For a brief period of time, Ernst’s “unremarkable man” brings about a change in the German’s attitude and outlook. What do you think Thomas is saying here, about Ernst and about sexuality in general?

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