Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Good at Heart

Ursula Werner is a Washington DC lawyer and a poet. But The Good at Heart is a novel, published last week by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, and it’s based on discoveries Werner has made about her own great-grandfather. It’s World War II and her fictional Eberhart family has moved to the countryside near the Swiss border to get away from Berlin and conflict. But the father is a member of Hitler’s cabinet, so the war can follow him. It follows him all the way to the family’s rural outpost when the Führer decides to visit the region. He will also pay a visit to the Eberhardts in their home where, paradoxically, members of the family are hiding two Polish Jewish children. In The Good at Heart, bucolic meets brutal.

THE DAY THE GERMAN ARMY opened fire on its own citizens in Blumental was the day of Pimpanella’s miracle. It was a cool summer morning, with the first promise of sun after four drizzly, cold days. Rosie woke early, hopped out of bed, and ran downstairs. Ever since she turned five, she had been allowed to check for eggs in the henhouse. She loved crawling into the small plywood hutch that housed the four chickens, reaching into each nest, and gently wiggling her fingers between the straw and the burlap, feeling around for that small, smooth oval, still warm from being under the hen’s puffed chest, the shell slightly soft.

Rosie also loved the hens, Pimpanella especially. Spindly little Pimpanella was the closest thing Rosie had to a pet; she was the only chicken who did not peck at Rosie’s feet in the outhouse. And Rosie protected Pimpanella against her grandfather. The last time Opa was home from Berlin, he declared Pimpanella useless because she had never been able to produce an egg. “A poor excuse for a fowl,” he called her. He chased Pimpanella around the yard with a stewpot lid, yelling at her to pull herself together and do her part for the war effort.

This morning, Rosie crawled up the short ladder and crept into the dusty coop. She made her way around the circle of nests: first Nina (one egg), then Rosamunde (also one), then Hanni (none, but she had a habit of laying her eggs any old place), and finally Pimpanella.

Author Ursula Werner. / Photo by Geoffrey Klineberg.

Rosie’s older sisters, Lara and Sofia, didn’t even check Pimpanella’s nest anymore because in the entire year they’d had her, they had never found anything. But Rosie had faith in Pimpanella, even if no one else did. You had to believe, Rosie thought. You had to believe in good things because there were too many bad things to scare you if you didn’t. Like when you saw soldiers with only half a face at the bakery in Berlin. Or when you saw the soldiers missing an arm or a leg. Or both.

Rosie gently patted Pimpanella’s entire nest, starting at the side nearest to her. Nothing. Undiscouraged, she started over, this time digging down a bit deeper with her fingers. Halfway through, on the edge of the tamped-down hay where Pimpanella usually sat, there it was—an egg, buried under about three centimeters of straw. Then, to Rosie’s surprise and delight, she found another, right next to the first one. Two eggs! Twins!

It was a glorious day. Rosie would have to remember to bring Pimpanella some carrot tops as a special treat. For now, she gathered all the eggs up carefully in her pajama top and walked back uphill to the house. The small square building stood at the northern end of their property, right by the road that ran along the train tracks into town. Its stucco walls held layers of ivy and honeysuckle, which wound their way around the blackened oak window frames up to a clay tile roof. Given the green cloak of these vines, and how tiny the house was compared to the vast garden surrounding it, anyone passing by the property along the lake path to the south might overlook the structure altogether.

For the Eberhardt family, however, the house was enough. Though cramped, it could hold five people, sometimes six or seven if Rosie’s father came home from the eastern front, or if her grandfather came south from his job in Berlin. The last time Rosie’s father was home, he was so skinny he looked like a ghost, and he woke up every night screaming. He didn’t stay long. The war wanted him back.

When Rosie entered the kitchen, it was empty except for the smell of warm bread. She deposited the eggs in the basket on the table. From the big hand on the clock, she knew she was late.

Rosie ran outside to the front of the house, where Sofia was waiting for her. The 8:00 a.m. train whistled in the distance. The girls didn’t have much time. Their daily race to see who would be first to the underpass would have to start right now.

Sofia looked at Rosie. “You’re not even dressed yet.”

“There wasn’t time,” Rosie said. “Quick, the train is coming!”

“All right, but you don’t get a head start just because you’re barefoot. Ready . . . set . . . go!”

It did not take more than several seconds for Sofia, two years older and at least a head taller than Rosie, to pull out in front, blond braids flapping against her shoulders. Racing just a few steps behind her sister, Rosie balled her fingers into fists. Her grandfather had told her that helped your speed. She was almost at Sofia’s feet.

—Ursula Werner

Excerpted from The Good at Heart by Ursula Werner. Copyright © 2017 by Ursula Werner. Reprinted with permission from Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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