Helen Dunmore: The Siege

The Siege
Grove Press

The legions of World War II fetishists never fail to disgust me. If you must have a war obsession, why not try a little variation? What of the Armenians and their Turkish oppressors during World War I? Yes, the Somalis get a bit of exposure in the movie Black Hawk Down, but it's nothing compared with the thousands of hours spent on Hitler. The harshest thing you can do to a world leader is to make him a footnote in history--just ask Clinton--yet I will venture that the Führer still receives more attention, in this country at least, than Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi combined.

Thus The Siege, a story set during the Nazi assault on the Soviet city of Leningrad, might seem ripe for dismissal. But author Helen Dunmore has found a worthy tale in this well-mined history: the story of a civilian population and its women workers. In this account, the German and Soviet war machines are consigned to some foggy, unreal haze. And so the book takes on the character of a fable; the struggles and morals tested could be from any point in time.

The heroine here, Anna, is a woman in her early 20s, left in charge of her father, Mikhail---a depressed, blacklisted author---and her five-year-old brother, Kolya. (Their mother died giving birth to him.) When the Germans begin surrounding Leningrad during the fall of 1941, Anna starts to think of hoarding rations and digging trenches and tank traps on the city's perimeter. Meanwhile, her father makes an almost suicidal move by joining the People's Volunteer Army. He befriends a young medic, Andrei, who takes it upon himself to visit Anna after her father suffers an injury. Romance, in the midst of war, ensues.

At times Dunmore's tone rivals the sickly wholesomeness of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, with Anna vying for sainthood, selflessly sharing her daily bread ration, virtuously refusing to copulate with Andrei, and showing kindness to a coarse working woman who often turns hooker in order to survive. But this flaw is eclipsed by the bleak constants of the story, General Winter and General Hunger, who always make the fiercest of Russian allies, whether they fight enemy Finns, Napoleon, or even the 1940s German warplanes. That is, unless these generals also take on the citizens of Leningrad, who by the middle of this book are completely isolated from outside supplies and are ending up in corpse piles on the impenetrable frozen ground.

Tragedy surrounds this little family unit, and it's almost certain someone among them must die. We follow them until spring illuminates the survivors as well as the dandelions, which make a good salad.

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