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Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian '82
Questions for discussion and Discussion Board
A Note to the Reader
In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this book–as well as the ending.
If you have not finished reading Skeletons at the Feast, we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide.
In the chaotic months before the final collapse of the Third Reich, the Germans living in the eastern part of Hitler’s empire fled their homes to escape the onslaught of the Soviet Army. If these refugees didn’t know the specifics of the atrocities their people had committed on Russian soil –and, in fact, were still committing in concentration camps across Poland and Germany–they nonetheless understood that the Russians were going to be merciless.
It is this world that Chris Bohjalian brings vividly and powerfully to life in Skeletons at the Feast. A Prussian aristocrat struggles west with her beautiful daughter, her young son, and a Scottish prisoner of war. Meanwhile, a female Jewish prisoner struggles to survive first the horrors of a concentration camp and then a forced march west in the ice and snow of a German winter. And a Jewish man who has leapt from a train bound for a death camp learns to do whatever he must to survive.
This reader’s guide is intended as a starting point for your discussion of the novel.
1. Both of Anna's parents are members of the Nazi Party-though it is clear that they are not die-hard believers. Living on their farm in rural Prussia, they are largely sheltered from the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews.
As Germans, do you think they share responsibility for the Nazis' actions even if they didn't know the full extent of what was happening? Why did they join the party? Did they have a choice? Consider Helmut's teacher who questions the boy about his father's loyalty to Hitler and the consequences of resisting. If failure to join meant death for you, what would you have done?
2. While arguing with Anna about what is really happening to Jews, Callum says, "Suppose my government in England just decided to 'resettle' the Catholics-to take away their homes, their animals, their possessions, and just send them away?" What if this was happening where you live? What actions would you be willing to take to protect your friends and neighbors?
At what point would the risks have been too great?
3. To survive, Uri impersonates a German soldier, stealing papers and uniforms from soldiers he either kills or finds dead. Discuss the events that lead up to his first killing of a Nazi. Discuss his reaction to what he has done (page 59). Do you believe his actions were warranted?
4. Theo is only a child but he feels lacking in comparison to his older brothers Werner and Helmut, both off fighting in the war. What kind of child is he? Does he fit in with his peers? Why doesn't Theo tell his mother about his foot? What does this reveal about him? Does Theo change over the course of the novel?
5. Describe Cecile. What kind of woman is she? What keeps her going in spite of the cruelty and degradation she suffers every day? How is she different from her friend Jeanne? Do you think you would act more like Cecile or Jeanne in the same circumstances?
6. In Chapter Eight, Helmut and his father, Rolf, try to convince Uncle Karl to leave his home along with the Emmerichs. He refuses, keeping his daughter, daughter-in-law, and grandson with him in spite of the danger. Why won't he evacuate? Why won't he let the women and the child leave? On page
118 he refers to them and their way of life as "skeletons at the feast."
What does he mean by this?
7. On page 178, Callum is thinking about bringing Anna home with him to Scotland after the war. How does he think she will be received? Why is he troubled?
8. During their long march from the prison camp to the factory, Jeanne and another prisoner find soldiers' rations and eat them. They do not wake Cecile to share them with her. Why? In the same circumstances, what would you have done?
9. Describe Mutti. What was she like at the beginning of the war? At the end? What does she view as her primary responsibility? On pages 291-293, she remembers burying the young German pilot whose plane crashed in her park.
Why was burying him-and the enemy Russian soldiers-important to her?
10. Discuss the legacy that Mutti's generation left for Anna's. As a nation, what kind of legacy are we leaving for our children?
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