Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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No one ever calls her “Mrs. Hitler”

A novel of the legacies that outlast war

“Wars don’t end when the shooting stops,” wrote author Betsy Woodman in her astute — and generous — review of The Munich Girl.

Deep in research now for her next novel, which is set in WW I, Betsy notes that, “In the fields of Belgium and Northern France, people are still being killed by accidentally unearthed bombs—from World War I.”

Eva Braun and her older sister, Ilse, with their father in his WWI uniform.

“We also continue to process World War II—in books, in movies, in the care and tending of monuments—and in our hearts,” she wrote. “Along with the more visible damage, war creates mysteries that leave people feeling uneasy and incomplete. Confusion and grief may particularly affect the war brides who leave home with their foreign soldier husbands, and curiosity about their parents’ past may nag at the children of such marriages.

Author Betsy Woodman

“In Ring’s thought-provoking The Munich Girl, Anna Dahlberg is the child of just such a war marriage. Her mother had both British and German heritage; her dad was an American soldier. We first see Anna in 1995, choked with panic in her airplane seat and clutching a handkerchief embroidered with a four-leaf clover. Mysteries abound: what earlier trauma has produced this state? Why is Anna headed for Germany? What will she unearth in her exploration of events that started over half a century ago?

“Foremost in Anna’s mind is the question, was her mother really a close friend of Adolf Hitler’s mistress (and wife for 40 hours), Eva Braun?

The Munich Girl is not always comfortable to read. Hearing Hitler referred to as “Adi” in conversation will make some readers squirm. Until they think—well, even villains have someone who loves them. In life, as in fiction, so much is a matter of point of view. The reader is invited to stretch and understand people like Eva Braun, who don’t usually arouse much sympathy.

“Ignorance of one’s past and of the people in it can leave a person feeling frustrated, baffled, and empty. Knowledge and reconnection are the cure. The Munich Girl is about healing, rediscovery, and finding one’s way out of the darkness into a bright future. Phyllis Edgerly Ring’s international perspective and deep sympathy for human beings shine through in this unorthodox and subtle tale.” ~ Betsy Woodman

Eva Braun was born 106 years ago today. “Did she really love him? How could she ever love him?” are questions I hear frequently about the woman who became “Mrs. Hitler” for the last day and a half of her short life. Ironically, even though marrying him was the greatest desire of her heart, no one ever calls her “Mrs. Hitler” now.

Anna, the book’s narrator, grew up eating family meals under her father’s war-trophy portrait of Eva Braun.

Fifty years after the war, she discovers what he never did—that her mother, Peggy, and Hitler’s mistress had a secret friendship, and a friendship filled with secrets.

The story begins to unfold for Anna with the discovery of a mysterious monogrammed handkerchief and the arrival of a man named Hannes Ritter, whose Third-Reich family history is entwined with her own.

The pathway of this novel’s story dropped many clues in front of me, two of the biggest, a handkerchief just like the one Anna finds — and the portrait of Eva Braun, which, somehow, found me, too.

Find more about The Munich Girl: A Novel of the Legacies that Outlast War here:

http://www.amazon.com/Munich-Girl-Novel-Legacies-Outlast/dp/B01AC4FHI8

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Let’s talk – about what unites rather than divides

As The Munich Girl’s second anniversary rolled around last month, life brought me many opportunities for reflection. And some lovely surprises for an author.

It brought what never fails to astonish me, what a friend calls “living into a dream realized.”

I’m reminded of words from author Norton Juster that I first encountered in grade school when I read The Phantom Tollbooth:

“So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.

“Expect everything, I always say, and the unexpected never happens.”

As I looked ahead toward 2018, I realized that my heart’s goal for the novel is that it serve as a tool for discussion about some of the vital issues facing us on humanity’s path. These certainly include gender equality, and how we build what unites us rather than feed the things that divide us — and demean us.

My hope for this story has always been that it can raise the sort of questions that invite reaching deeper into ourselves for the vision that sees beyond the misperceptions that veil us from the living reality of oneness in which, and for which we’ve been created

Then I heard from author Arlene Bice, who read and reviewed The Munich Girl very thoughtfully a year ago. She had decided to have a follow-up discussion about the novel with some book group friends, and was generous enough to share a blog post about it afterward so that I could “listen in.”

“We particularly discussed the many relationships in the book,” Arlene noted. “The intricacies of a friendship, even one that is only renewed every four years and holds secrets. … The discussion spread to our political situation today, with many comparisons made about what we, as Americans, are facing today.

“We talked about how the women of today have so much more power and the avenue to use it than in the ’30s and ’40s. Hopefully, more women will go into the political arena and truly change our country for the better.

“We spoke of how the brave women of today will no longer tolerate sexual coercion from powerful men and put shame on the shoulders of those who have taken advantage of their power.”

As I reviewed Arlene’s words, I realized that back in November of 2015 when this book published, I couldn’t have imagined all that would be current before us in these days, and the parallels readers would draw between that and themes in the book’s story. Certainly, it is set in a very tumultuous time for both Germany and the world, a time I’d venture to say we may not have explored quite deeply enough yet.

So let’s keep talking.

If you’d like me to join in, I’m happy to, via Facetime, or in-person if it’s geographically feasible. If you or anyone you know has interest in this, just let me know in the comments or at info@phyllisring.com. I also offer discounts on the book’s price for those who’d like to read and discuss it together (with or without my looming presence 🙂 .)

You can find Arlene’s post about the discussion here: https://purplestoneblog.com/2017/11/21/the-munich-girl-by-phyllis-edgerly-ring-revisited/

 


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A story of many kinds of homecomings

A highlight for me as my novel, The Munich Girl, came into the world was my return to the first place in Germany where my family lived when I was a child.

On the cloudy November afternoon that the book published, I faced the Main River in the tiny village of Dorfprozelten and offered my thanks at the grave of Herr and Frau Geis, who shared their house with my family back in the early 1960s.

It was because my military family lived “on the economy” with them that my sense of myself as a citizen of the world began so early. The fact that my family established close ties with German people in post-war Europe also inevitably led me to want to understand the experience of Germans themselves during the war.

I’d never have imagined that this path would take me through Hitler’s living room as it drew me into the life of his longtime mistress, later wife, Eva Braun.

“How will you ever get readers past the fact that it’s her – that she’s such a large part of the story?” is a question I grew used to hearing.

I wouldn’t. I knew that from the start. Readers would embark on that particular journey only if they were willing to.

This story in no way seeks to exonerate or “redeem” her, Rather, she makes a good motif for looking at the ways in which many people, women in particular, suppress our own lives – or often don’t even claim those lives fully at all.

The story of The Munich Girl is about many things, including, of course, Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, and many facets of history from the time of the war in Germany. It is also about the power of friendship, and the importance of our often ignored and overlooked inner life, without which our world careens increasingly out-of-balance, as it did in those wartime days.

Much like the book’s protagonist, Anna, I repeatedly experience what invites me to look beyond what I think I know, and have understood about life. The process of uncovering the story has helped me remember many kinds of homecomings, spiritual and material, that life brings to us.

At its heart, it’s a story about outlasting that chaos and confusion that unavoidably visit us, in both public and private wars. We seem to do that by valuing, and believing in, the stronger possibility in all of the good that we are willing to contribute to building together.

Part of our ability to do that, I’ve come to believe, rests in being able to recognize that human beings aren’t usually all good, or all bad, but a complex mix of where our experience, understanding, and choices have led us.  As one character in The Munich Girl observes: “Sometimes, we must outlast even what seems worse than we have imagined, because we believe in the things that are good. So that there can be good things again.”

Eight years ago when the process of this book began, I also couldn’t have imagined what those words might come to mean in the atmosphere of our world today. I thank every reader who’s giving the book time, and also offering thoughtful reflection that helps me to continue learning from the pathway of this story, every day.

More about The Munich Girl: https://www.amazon.com/Munich-Girl-Novel-Legacies-Outlast/dp/0996546987


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The Munich Girl and Nazi Germany – and now

Photo montage courtesy of Patricia Mueggler.

 

As I landed back in the U.S. from a span of time in Europe, I received this kind message from writer Stephanie Villegas:

“Just wanted to let you know that my latest blog post was a list of the best WWII books (for Middle & YA readers) and your book The Munich Girl is on the list.”

I am honored that the novel has been recommended this way, and it’s in great company on that list –

http://easypeasyfiction.blogspot.com/2017/10/25-best-wwii-books-for-middle-grade-and.html

Discovering the “Girl” on a library shelf in Kendal, UK.

Stephanie’s blog is well worth visiting for some intriguing posts, too, especially one about what sort of very human lives we need to see better represented in fiction. Be sure to look for some of her own short stories while you’re there.

As I revisited the trail of The Munich Girl over these last weeks, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what my experience with writing the book revealed for me, and what I continue to discover now.

Many readers, both in their questions and their reviews, draw parallels between the historic time frame of the novel and the events and atmosphere of our own time.

Fun and new friends in Munich.

Earlier this year, I enjoyed an interview with author Elizabeth Horton-Newton, whose good questions led me to exploring some of my own reflections on this, especially as they relate to the imbalances playing themselves out (and quite intensely!) all around us:

  1. You’ve chosen a very unusual subject to write about. How did you come up with the idea for The Munich Girl?

My original intent was (and remained) to explore more about the lives of everyday Germans during WWII. When life led me to information about Eva Braun, it opened up whole new questions, particularly because she came from a background of everyday Germans – not what many would expect to be Hitler’s choice at all.

When the question: “What if you had known Eva Braun, but hadn’t known the role she played in his life?” arose, the story’s momentum became unstoppable for me. A number of people actually did have this experience with her, didn’t find out the truth of her situation until after her death, because she was required to remain an invisible secret in Hitler’s life. That way, he could sustain the adulation he received through the myth that “his bride was Germany”.

 

  1. Did you anticipate the amount of research you would need to do? How did you decide where to begin?

Because my interest had been hooked, I welcomed the research process. I stumbled into this focus because, as I sought to understand the experience of German people during the war, the very first book I read was about Eva Braun.

The author pointed out that Braun’s experience with Hitler mirrored Germany’s. First he seduced them, then abandoned them, and finally, led them into destruction.

Through further reading, I gained a more complete view of the time period in Germany, and of the world Eva Braun inhabited. I then I began to study her films and photographs more closely, since photography was such an essential part of who she was. It’s why we have such personal visual records of Hitler, and many of her images reveal a lot about the tone and circumstances of her life, too.

  1. As you did your research did your feelings about the real people, Eva Braun, Hitler, any others, change? In what way?  

As I learned more about Hitler than I’d ever want to, it was unmistakable how flawed his psyche and personality were. Textbook narcissistic personality disorder, later compounded by the erratic results of a mixture of unstable drugs.

But once you get beyond the significant inaccuracies published about Eva Braun over the years, you find a more rounded and humane personality, one whom many credible sources even admired.

She was dismissed by historians as unimportant when, in fact, as one German biographer noted, she holds the key to better understanding Hitler.

But only if we’re willing to allow that, in addition to behaving monstrously, he was also human. For some, that idea’s still something like heresy.

However, a paradox that I think could tell us a lot about our present imbalances of inequality is that the very sorts of caring, nurturing qualities that the Nazis sought to demean and suppress were exactly what Hitler came home to Eva Braun for.

One question for me is, when, and how, will we find the collective will to value and honor these qualities in both genders, and all situations?

It is the devaluing of them that has allowed, and continues to allow, atrocities like the Holocaust to happen.

You can find Elizabeth’s full interview, along with her review of the book here:

https://elizabethnnewton.com/2017/02/17/the-munich-girl-by-phyllis-edgerly-ring/


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Facts, fiction, and female characters

Autumn in Murnau, Vassily Kandinsky, 1908.

Author Dianne Ascroft, who writes historical fiction, offered me a wonderful interview.

Her questions are some of the most enjoyable I’ve received and as I explore the path of The Munich Girl in my current memoir writing, they’re especially helpful:

Describe how you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel.

PER: Invented characters act as catalysts for what a writer discovers about the story, so that’s a huge part of the pleasure of coming to know them.

Characters who were real people require research accuracy, of course. A paradox I encountered is how very much information published about Eva Braun is inaccurate, including many photos in which someone else, including her own sister, is identified as her.

While she’s not the protagonist, I was looking for more of the emotional story that her life showed. The novel’s goal has never been to try to exonerate or “redeem” her, or how she is perceived. She’s an excellent motif for examining how people, especially women, suppress our own lives, and what forces and factors lead us to do that.

She also offers a way to look at the reality that human beings are complex. She clearly had a conscience, and acted on it, tried to make good choices.

She also made ones that served neither herself nor others very well. Do we negate or devalue the contributions that someone makes because they also do things that are misguided, ill-advised, or even personally destructive? Do we not all share this same complexity in experience? These are themes I wanted to explore.

How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?

PER: As closely as possible when it came to information from the WWII era and the years that preceded it in Germany. As my husband says, if the characters ride a train on a certain line at a certain time of day, there had to really be one.

There’s a lot of factual information in The Munich Girl and I’ve heard from readers that it can be hard to know where the factual leaves off and the fiction begins. It’s easy to know where: in the emotional lives of the characters, including those people that history remembers. That’s where my own attempt to read between the lines of daily life watched for the signs of interior life I could recognize and convey as the story revealed itself.

In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?

PER: This was one of the most delightful parts, for me, as I spent extended spans of time in various locales in Germany that are a part of the story.

Also, in the time I spent poring over Eva Braun’s photographs and films, I got to know both the interiors and exteriors of the settings as they appeared during the 1930s and ‘40s.

A fun element of research was what has become, for me, a growing collection of vintage postcards that show scenes from that era in many of the settings of the story.

There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters.

Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?

PER: I love stories where there’s a balance that hints at what a world with equality might look and feel like. This novel has a lot more scope for female characters. At its heart is a friendship between two women, one of whom was a megalomaniac’s mistress, and the effect their emotional intimacy had in each of their lives, and in the lives of those who came along in a next generation.

But it’s really about two facets of human experience that matter a great deal to me, ones I imagine are still characterized as more “feminine” than “masculine,” though I believe they apply in all of our lives. The first is the inner reunion of “coming home to” our truest self that we all must eventually encounter. The second, and even more intriguing facet, for me, is the mysterious role that others play in that process, often in highly unexpected ways.

One particular paradox I discovered might open the door to a deeper conversation about gender equality, one that examines it from the perspective of human virtues. It’s that the qualities of compassion and care that Hitler and the Third Reich sought to demean, reject, and suppress are precisely what he came home to Eva Braun for. This unexamined and very common imbalance, which distorts and abuses the value of the very things we need to heal as a world, continues to play out on a massive, violent scale in human life.

Find the full interview here:  https://dianneascroft.com/2016/08/05/meeting-the-munich-girl/


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Following the spiritual breadcrumbs

As I revisit themes from my novel, The Munich Girl, during my travels in Europe over these next weeks, I am mining, inwardly, for facets of my experience in writing that book that have been calling –and loudly — for quite some time now.

Doesn’t matter whether I’m awake or asleep, they mean business, and they’re not going away. What they want even appeared like a sign on a wall in a dream: memoir.

This is always the point at which I hear a voice in my head, with a mild British accent, asking, “Whatever bloody for?” It chimed in frequently over the nearly nine years that The Munich Girl came into being. The process of that book showed me that if I didn’t flinch or back away from that question but met it head-on, that voice frequently shifted to something like, “Oh, right, then,” and actually became a helpful ally.

As a writer, I have actively avoided the prospect of memoir for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is public embarrassment. (“Who cares?” is an effective deterrent, too.) Some might argue that I’ve already gotten the embarrassment part out of the way, perhaps more than once, and I wouldn’t disagree.

When I finally understood enough about the purpose of memoir as focusing in and reflecting about a specific stage or aspect of personal experience, I had a humbling recognition. The fact is, in much the way creative process, in all its mystery, delivered every part of the novel’s story when I was willing to let it lead, it offered up, at the same time, a cache of memoir material. It was like those dual-action machines gaining popularity in Europe that both wash and dry your clothes — it had practically outlined the next book for me.

If I had the heart, and will, to follow the trail again. “Spiritual breadcrumbs,” one friend calls this, adding boldly, “Are you going to be so ungrateful as to let them go to waste?”

I hadn’t planned to write a memoir any more than I had a novel that includes Hitler’s wife . But just as the environs of that story did, something is acting on me in a way I’ve given up trying to explain, but absolutely cannot deny.  As I have more conversations with readers of The Munich Girl, encounter the deep questions they ask and the observations they make after living in the book for a time, the following passage, which played a big part in the emotional themes of the novel, is right back in front of me for re-examination.

Without a doubt, I’ll let it lead again, whatever the outcome, because my heart knows it’s too big a piece of our current dilemmas in this world — too universal a one — not to heed, and honor.

We are all of us searching for love, for the intimacy, closeness, tenderness we may remember from when we were in our mother’s arms or may have glimpsed in a lover’s embrace.

Or we may know it just as a sense of something we always wanted, something missing from our life.

This love is at the core of our being, and yet we search for it everywhere, so often causing our self pain in the process, losing our way, becoming entangled in our desires and all our images of love.

Then, one day, something makes us turn away from the outer world to seek this truth within us.

~ Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee


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An over-shadowed life

As I continue to receive valued feedback from book-discussion groups and readers, I reflect on how much the world’s continuing hunger to “understand” Hitler is aided by understanding more about Eva Braun.

Much of what’s conveyed about her (huge amounts of it inaccurate) has been based on presumed understanding about him.

But the reality is that more complete information about her can help us better understand more about why Hitler, despite the evil he represents (or perhaps because of it), has occupied collective consciousness for more than 70 years.

Far from attempting to redeem her, my novel, The Munich Girl, follows along patterns of how Braun’s life in Hitler’s shadow, which ended alongside him when she was 33, is emblematic of what many women have done, and still do, in a world still hobbled by inequality. Unable to enact their own potential in a direct way, they resort to doing so from the invisible sidelines and background.

Eva Braun with her mother, Franziska Kronberger Braun.

In Eva Braun’s case, that public invisibility lasted the entire 16 years she spent with Hitler.

One reviewer notes: “The Munich Girl looks at the role of women in different cultures and periods in a way that is quite relevant right now. Do women choose to play the lead in their own lives or do they sacrifice themselves for others? Ms. Ring also leads us to ask what we know of our parents’ lives. How might their experiences or traumas be passed down to us? How open are we to the changes that can come from deep healing?”

Another reader writes: “Women, even well-educated women such as [Anna], the novel’s protagonist, are groomed to give up their lives for the ‘larger’ missions of their husbands and lovers. … one of the many ways in which the feminine aspect of humanity is subjugated, Fascism being the most extreme form.”

The story of The Munich Girl is about many things beyond Eva Braun and the time of the war in Germany.

It’s about how women share our lives with each other, the power of our friendships, and the way we protect each other’s vulnerabilities, perhaps as part of how we begin to gain compassion.

So that our world can, too.

Find more about The Munich Girl at: