This Terrible Beauty

Katrin Schumann

Lake Union Publishing 2020

Suspense seeps through each page of Katrin Schumann’s historical fiction novel, “The Terrible Beauty.” Her evocative characters maneuver through a grim life on the German island of Rügen during Hitler’s regime, air attacks in World War II, followed by Russian occupation and the onset of the Cold War.

Schumann deploys graphic prose to convey the tragic life of protagonist Bettina Heilstrom, whose story is told in flashbacks. At age 40, Heilstrom, then living in the United States, has just won a Smithsonian photography cash prize, and plans to use the money to return to Germany to find her daughter.

As a young woman, she was rescued by the older Werner Nietz, who had not been conscripted into the German army because he was crippled with polio. Both alone, they find comfort in each other’s company and decide to marry. After the war, Russia occupies Rügen Island, and Nietz embraces the new government and assists the Russians in their surveillance activities. Meanwhile, Bettina reconnects with a soldier she’d met years before on the island beach, Peter, who had defected from the German army. She falls in love with him and becomes pregnant. 

… a spiraling drama that shows how quickly governments can cross swords and spark world conflict.

When Nietz discovers the affair, his act of revenge gives Bettina a choice: She can leave Germany without the child, or she and Peter will be sent to a labor prison in Berlin,“where dissidents were rumored to disappear for years on end.” Nietz, now a functionary in the communist party, is clearly capable of carrying out his threat.

This book is a most worthwhile read because it offers historical perspective. Within just a 30-year-period, people living on Rügen Island, mostly unknown to USA citizens, were bombarded, after the war had to deal with the reality of Hitler’s atrocities, and then were occupied by an oppressive regime whose surveillance turned friends and neighbors against each other. Schumann depicts all of this in a spiraling drama that shows how quickly governments can cross swords and spark world conflict.