Monday, December 07, 2020

A secret WWII history comes to light in Aimie K. Runyan's Across the Winding River

I’ve revisited this novel so many times in the past few months that the characters feel like old friends. First I read it back in June, but before I could gather my thoughts together and write a review, I was assigned a different book with a very short deadline – then the same thing happened in September. After finding some time over the Thanksgiving weekend, I got my writeup done at last.

Aimie K. Runyan’s fifth novel is anchored in two historical periods – California in 2007, and Germany during WWII – and told from three perspectives. The story combines a classic plot pattern of a young woman discovering her father’s secret wartime history with his first-person account of that history, along with a third strand from the viewpoint of a German woman, a female pilot and aircraft designer who’s an aristocrat by marriage, and who has secret Jewish heritage. The stories interlock, but not the way you’d assume.

In the modern era, Beth Cohen is startled to discover a decades-old snapshot of her father, Max, gazing into the eyes of a pregnant young blonde. At the end of his life, at age 90, Max Blumenthal is finally ready to reveal his involvement with the woman he loved and lost before he met Beth’s mother, hoping to solve a mystery that’s lingered for decades. In 1944, as a newly minted dentist, Max decides to enlist rather than wait to be drafted, feeling an obligation to do his part for the war because of his lost relatives from Latvia. Part of a medical detachment during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest near the German border, he gets pulled into the resistance movement after one night when he intercepts a young woman stealing medical supplies for a friend she claims is working against Hitler. He chooses to let her go.

Of the three protagonists, Johanna Schiller is the most intriguing. As a skilled test pilot, she doesn’t fall into the Nazis’ preferred role for women, and she grows uneasy about her brother’s quick absorption into the Hitler Youth and fellow Germans’ reporting on each other’s “unpatriotic” activities. Johanna also has a younger sister, Metta, who seems resigned to the life planned out for her as a loyal wife to the Reich. The story moves from the sexism German women faced under Nazi rule to the heroism of the resistance, and the courageous paths traveled by those who actively yet covertly rebelled. The plot has a couple of incredible coincidences but wraps up in a way that enables the characters to heal from the wounds of the past.

Across the Winding River was published by Lake Union/Amazon in August (reviewed from a NetGalley copy).


  1. Another good read re the Big Wars. So many different angles and perspectives, the Wars are such a big source for intriguing stories. So many decades later.

  2. That's all very true.