Book review

Forty Autumns

Nina Willner

In a few words

In the wake of WWII, when Germany is divided into East and West, friends and families are separated almost overnight. One young woman, Hanna, decides to flee East Germany early in the regime, but it means leaving behind everyone she knows and loves. Forty Autumns is the story of what it was like for Hanna and her family, told from both inside and outside “The Iron Curtain”.

Great for

Published in 2016 and told by Hanna’s daughter, Nina, this book will be great for those with an interest in history, politics and family sagas. The narrative style of this non-fiction book makes it an easy, but compelling and informative read. Nina manages to craft the story with such detail and intimacy it is as though she were there, witnessing events before she was even born.

Why I love this book

From the first page I was drawn deeply into Hanna and her family’s world — I felt their initial relief with the American (rather than Russian) occupation in the immediate aftermath of the war, and struggled with them through the increasingly suffocating years that followed under the strict communist regime.

I marveled at the resilience of the family — Oma (Hanna’s mother) and Heidi (Hanna’s younger sister) in particular. Oma put up her own metaphorical “family wall” to provide a small but significant haven during a time when one in six members of the community were spying for the Stasi. She kept the family united through incredibly difficult circumstances, including her husband (Opa’s) mental breakdowns. Heidi held tight to the memory of a single visit to the West, never joined the Communist Party despite the disadvantages to her and her children, and eventually built a bucolic retreat with her husband where they could relax and unwind most weekends.

Overall, the family learns to find happiness in the smallest things: They are thankful for their home-grown food, time spent together in trustworthy company, and for any news from Hanna that would sporadically make its way past the wall in the form of postcards, packages and phone calls.

The personal struggles of the family are woven together with lots of historically interesting details: The success of East German Olympians, the creativity of some of the escapees, the politics and propaganda of the GDR, and the jubilant celebrations at The Berlin Wall in 1989 — I learned so much from reading this account.

My one criticism would be

The only parts of the book that I found less compelling were those focused on the author’s time working for US intelligence. While she does visit East Berlin during The Cold War, her experiences don’t strongly relate to the core narrative and, while interesting, I found them somewhat distracting and almost unnecessary.

Renee Blackburn


Renee's book group has reignited a passion for reading widely, but she’s particularly partial to well-written non-fiction that encourages her to view the world in a different way. 

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