Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Seed Woman by Petra Durst-Benning, a novel of the seed trade in mid-19th century Germany

I enjoy reading novels that focus on “microhistories” – that is, a narrow aspect of social history and its impact on the surrounding world. Petra Durst-Benning’s The Seed Woman, first published in 2005 in German and recently translated by Edwin Miles, narrows its gaze on the seed-traders of Gönningen in the Swabian Mountains of southwestern Germany.

Many residents of this small village made their living in the seed trade. These enterprising men and women used various methods of travel to distribute their goods on established routes (their “Samenstrich,” or seed-line) around the country, throughout Europe, and even abroad.

The book will whisk you away on its characters’ journeys on foot and via cart and aboard ship to the Netherlands and across the Black Sea to distant Odessa. Farmers and gardeners depended on this regular commerce to grow fruit and vegetable crops and plant heirloom bulbs to beautify their environment.

The novel’s heroine is Hannah Brettschneider, an innkeeper’s daughter from Nuremberg who had become pregnant after a one-night stand with one of the hotel guests. When she makes her way to Gönningen to find her baby’s father, Helmut Kerner, he’s astonished to see her again. Her presence creates instant tension, because Helmut’s already agreed to marry the beautiful Seraphine. A woman with her head in the clouds, Seraphine had been told from a young age that she was a child brought by the fairies… and she actually believes it.

Pulled in two directions, Helmut ultimately decides his responsibility lies with Hannah and her child. What’s more, Hannah’s cheerful personality meshes well with his, and as they get to know each other better, they make a good couple. Helmut’s engagement to Seraphine gets broken off, but he doesn’t seem to mind; with her disconnection from reality, I couldn't blame him. However, Seraphine refuses to give up on Helmut. Her disturbed, obsessive behavior sends the book down many dramatic, often ridiculous avenues.

The storyline would have been more believable if Seraphine’s personality had been more nuanced. Despite the issues with character development, the rest of the plot was interesting enough that I kept turning the pages. I enjoyed viewing the changing of the seasons along with the Kerner family, learning more about the seed trade, and seeing Hannah’s ongoing transformation from city girl to “seed woman.”

The Seed Woman will be published next week by AmazonCrossing in pb and ebook. This was a Read Now title on NetGalley, and thanks to the publisher for enabling access to it.

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