Stones from the River by Ursula HegiStones from the River by Ursula Hegi

Stones from the River

byUrsula Hegi

Paperback | March 1, 1997

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From the acclaimed author of Floating in My Mother’s Palm and Children and Fire, a stunning story about ordinary people living in extraordinary times—“epic, daring, magnificent, the product of a defining and mesmerizing vision” (Los Angeles Times).

Trudi Montag is a Zwerg—a dwarf—short, undesirable, different, the voice of anyone who has ever tried to fit in. Eventually she learns that being different is a secret that all humans share—from her mother who flees into madness, to her friend Georg whose parents pretend he’s a girl, to the Jews Trudi harbors in her cellar.

Ursula Hegi brings us a timeless and unforgettable story in Trudi and a small town, weaving together a profound tapestry of emotional power, humanity, and truth.
Ursula HegiUrsula Hegi grew up in a small German town. She left her country of origin when she was eighteen years old, moved to America, and became a United States citizen five years later. Hegi has discovered that it is impossible to leave behind one's origins. "The older I get," she says, "the more I realize that I am inescapably en...
Title:Stones from the RiverFormat:PaperbackDimensions:528 pages, 8 × 5.25 × 1.3 inPublished:March 1, 1997Publisher:TouchstoneLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:068484477X

ISBN - 13:9780684844770

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Oprah's Book Club 2.0


Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great characters This took me awhile to get into but couldn't put it down after a few chapters. A very different perspective on the war stories I'm used to.
Date published: 2015-09-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my top ten! I LOVED this novel. As a history teacher it is great to read a novel from the German perspective of WWII. Trudi is an amazing combination: an innocent and sympathetic , yet complex and strong character. I have recommended this book to so many people, I have lost count.
Date published: 2010-09-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bridging hardships This is an absolutely fascinating book as it weaves the story of one woman "zwerg" (dwarf) and her acceptance of herself, her town, and her country during the second world war in Germany. Her discovery of prejudice in all facets of life forces the reader to view and conduct their own lives. I couldn't put the book down and I constantly thought of the difficuly of "acceptance" in our society for those who have any sort of difference.
Date published: 2000-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Holocaust Brough Home This was one of the most haunting books I have ever read. I have read few books set during the Third Reich that were from the average German's point of view. It is a revealing examination of the entrenchment of the Nazi regime into the everyday life of the average German. A must read!
Date published: 1999-04-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from gripping! I LOVED this book! It has so much! Not only the story of a young dwarf woman, but a unique insight into WWII from a German (but not Nazi) point of view. Very thought provoking...
Date published: 1999-04-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Stones From the River An unforgettable book about a dwarf child named Trudi Montag growing up in a small town in Germany during the war years. Living in those years was hard enough without being a dwarf. To add to her challenges, Trudi's mother went mad. Trudi learns that everyone has a secret that deserves our respect and compassion. A very good read.
Date published: 1998-12-03

Read from the Book

Sometimes Trudi and Eva played with Seehund by the brook in back of the pay-library, but he'd run from them, yelping, if they'd splash him with water. And whenever they dragged him into the brook to teach him how to swim, he escaped as soon as they let go of his collar. Soon he learned to stay at a safe distance from Trudi if she went near water. "You should have named him something else," Eva said one fall afternoon after they'd given up on trying to submerge Seehund. "A seal is supposed to love water." "We'll call him Earth Snail," Trudi suggested. Eva laughed. "Turtle Breath." Both arms stretched wide, Trudi whirled around. "Turtle Breath," she chanted. "Earth Snail...." Her right foot banged into the end of the wooden planks that spanned the narrow arm of the brook soon after it forked. She cried out. "Pinch your earlobe," Eva yelled. Clutching her toe in one hand, Trudi hopped back and forth on the other foot. "Just try it," Eva ordered. "It stops the pain." When Trudi pinched her earlobe, it stung. Miraculously, her toe stopped hurting. "How come it works?" She plopped down on the grass next to Eva. "It just does. I'll show you something else." Eva brought her face up against Trudi's. Her breath smelled of raspberry pudding as she opened her lips -- so wide that Trudi could see deep inside her mouth. Its roof was curved like the ceiling in St. Martin's Church, and the dark gap in back was separated by a pink icicle. When Eva's tongue stretched up, it hid the gap but exposed bluish veins beneath her tongue and a taut membrane that connected it to the bottom of her mouth. "Try it." Eva's voice was muffled. The tip of her tongue danced against the roof of her mouth. "Move it so it tickles." Trudi tried. "It feels silly." Eva closed her mouth but right away yawned as if she needed to move her lips. "Remember to do this if you're ever hiding and have to sneeze and don't dare to because someone may capture you." "Who would capture me?" "You never know. It's an old Indian trick. Indians do it when they don't want their enemies to find them." "How do you know?" "My father. He read it in a book from your library. I know all kinds of other remedies." "Can any of them -- " Trudi felt her hands go sweaty. That morning, when she'd told Sister Mathilde she wanted to become a teacher, the sister had said it wasn't a good choice because children wouldn't have respect for a teacher who was shorter than they. She rubbed her palms against her skirt before she dared to ask Eva, "Can any of those remedies make you grow?" Slowly, Eva pulled at a clump of grass until it came out by its roots. She tossed it into the brook, where it swirled in slow loops as it drifted away. "I don't know of any remedies." Eva's voice was soft. "You'll grow on your own." "Sister Mathilde -- she says I can't be a teacher." "My mother says people can be anything they want to be." "What do you want to be?" "A doctor. I'll be a doctor and you'll be a teacher." "Teachers have to be tall." "Teachers have to be smart. You're the smartest girl in class." "I know," Trudi said without enthusiasm. She would gladly give up being smart if she could be tall. "I don't want to look different." "Look." Eva unbuttoned her cardigan and blouse. "I'm different too." She pulled up her undershirt. A dark red birthmark, shaped like an irregular flower, spread across her thin chest. Its petals blossomed across her nipples and toward her waist in a paler shade of red than the center, as if they'd faded under a strong sun. Air and sound and scent spun through Trudi as she raised one hand and brought it close to Eva's flower, spun through her, spun her, as though she were spinning in a world that would always and always spin through her. Her ears hummed and her arms tingled and it took impossible effort not to lay her palm against Eva's chest until Eva nodded, but when she finally did, the skin of the flower was the same warmth as her own hand and it felt as though she were touching herself. Eva swallowed, twice, and Trudi felt her heart beating beneath the flower. With her free hand, she traced the outline of the petals, wishing she could trade her difference for Eva's. "It's beautiful," she whispered. Eva yanked down her undershirt so hard it dislodged Trudi's hands. Her long fingers jammed the buttons back through their holes. "You'll grow, but I'll always have this." She leapt up. "And when I have babies, they'll drink red milk from me." She dashed across the planks to the other side of the river and down the hill that led toward the fairgrounds. When Trudi ran after her, Seehund raced toward the brook, barked, but recoiled a couple of times before he stalked across the planks like a very old dog. As soon as he was on the other side, he caught up with Trudi, then Eva, circling between the two girls like a sheepdog pulling in his flock. Trudi wanted to keep running, wanted to keep hearing that conviction in Eva's voice: You'll grow. "You really mean it?" she shouted, her legs feeling long and light as if they'd already begun to stretch. "What?" Eva stopped. One of her braids had come undone and hung in waves down one side of her face. "About growing!" "Yes," Eva shouted back and flung herself into the high grass. "Yes yes yes." Her head disappeared, and she stuck her feet high into the air -- above the clover and daisies and cornflowers -- her legs pumping the air as though she were riding a bicycle. Trudi threw herself down next to Eva, her breath fast and dry, but Eva's legs kept flying through the air as if she were trying to get away from wherever she was. Trudi broke off a handful of purple clover and began to braid the stems. "What are you doing?" Eva dropped her legs and lay motionless. "Making a crown for you." Seehund nudged Trudi's shoulder, then dashed off again. Careful not to snap any of the stems, she wove more of the purple flowers into a crown for Eva. The air was moist and still, very still. As Trudi set the crown into Eva's sweaty hair, she wished she could take Eva to the sewing room and keep her there, lock her up, her friend forever. They stood up, and when Seehund ran toward them, a bird -- a gray bird with a ruby chest -- swerved from the grass near him. Like a lopsided top, it reeled and whirred, one wing spread, as it fluttered into the dog's path. Playfully, he stopped the mad flight with one paw and, before Trudi could come to the bird's aid, closed his jaws on it. "Make him stop," Eva cried. With both hands, Trudi pried Seehund's teeth apart. A startling trace of something ancient and rotting rose with his breath. As he let go of the bird, Eva scooped it up in her hands. Its chest was rising and falling rapidly, and one wing hung at a crooked angle. Eva carried the bird home in the basket that Seehund had come in. Her mother would set the wing in her office, and Eva would keep the bird in the basket for two days and two nights before she'd find it dead. She would be inconsolable until her father would phone Herr Heidenreich. At his shop, the tall taxidermist would cradle the bird in his hands and promise Eva to give it a new soul. To convince her of his magic, he'd let her hold the lifelike bodies of other birds he'd preserved, inspiring in Eva a fascination with stuffed birds that would continue into her adult years. But the night after Seehund hurt the bird which, quite likely, had already been injured, Trudi didn't let him into the house. Tied with a length of clothesline to one of the pillars of wood outside the earth nest where Trudi's mother used to hide, the dog spent the night outdoors. Alone in her room, Trudi kept seeing the flower on Eva's chest, kept seeing it through the layers of clothing, lit from within Eva's body. In school, Trudi and Eva learned that the Jews had killed Jesus. That was true because the sisters said so; but Trudi didn't know if what Fritz Hansen said was also true -- that Jews killed Christians and drank their blood and offered them as sacrifices to the devil who was their God. Jews like that seemed far away and foreign -- not at all like Eva and the Frau Doktor; or Frau Simon; or the Abramowitz family; or Fraulein Birnsteig, the concert pianist who, it was rumored, was a genius. The Jews in Burgdorf were different kinds of Jews, not the kind who killed Jesus -- or anyone, for that matter. They might beat you up, but not kill you. Trudi had already learned that belonging to one religion meant getting beaten up by kids of other religions. Mostly, though, the Catholic kids would be the ones to chase the Jewish or Protestant kids. There were lots of other reasons for getting beaten up: if you were a girl or if -- in any way -- you didn't look like others. In school you also learned it was wrong to question anything that had to do with God and the saints. You had to believe. And for answers that demonstrated your belief you received holy cards -- pictures of saints with rings of light around their raised heads. Questions were doubts. Doubts were sins. Even wondering why the Holy Ghost looked like a pigeon was a doubt. Or trying to figure out how that pigeon stayed up in the air between God and Jesus without having to flap its wings like other pigeons. "There are things we do not ask...." "If God had wanted us to know, he would have sent us proof, but God wants us to believe...." But for Trudi, questions that weren't answered kept prodding at her. When she asked Sister Mathilde what God ate, the sister said, "God is nourished by his own eternal love," and when Trudi wanted to know how Jesus could change from being God to being that small, heavy boy on the shoulder of St. Christopherus, the sister told Trudi. "This is what faith is all about -- believing what cannot be explained." But it wasn't only during religion lessons that the sister talked about God. God and the saints had a way of appearing in every subject. "If Saint Hedwig has ten plums and there are five lepers -- how many plums will she give to each leper?" "When God made the world, where did he put the North Sea?" "It pleases the Virgin Mother when she sees tidy handwriting." The prettiest statue of the Virgin Mother was kept in the church basement, but the last day of November it was dusted off and displayed on the side altar of St. Martin's, part of the nativity scene. Maria's gown was the color of heaven, and her mouth curved in a cryptic smile as she knelt next to the pile of straw where the Christ Child lay. St. Josef looked rather stodgy and old, like Herr Blau, the way he stood behind her, leaning on a stick. But all three had identical glittering halos and were surrounded by nearly a hundred clay pots, filled with lush violets, that belonged to the winner of the annual violet contest, an honor that the old women of Burgdorf dreamed about all year and competed for, fiercely. That December Trudi became a member of the church choir. Sister Mathilde had selected her and Irmtraud Boden because they had the best voices in class and could memorize entire hymns. Trudi loved standing on the high balcony next to the organ, loved the way the other voices in the choir filled in around her voice, and as she belted out the hymns, she felt them vibrate in her chest, her toes, lifting her on the current of music. "She has the voice of an angel," Herr Heidenreich, who also sang in the choir, told Trudi's father. That compliment meant a lot coming from the taxidermist, whose voice was so beautiful that the pastor always chose him for solos. When, the first Sunday of Advent, Herr Pastor Schuler lit one of the four candles on the pine wreath that hung above the Holy Family, Trudi felt all sacred and still inside. The rich threads in the pastor's brocade chasuble glistened, and the scent of incense wove itself into her breath. If only she could become a priest. But only men could be priests. Women could be nuns, but she didn't want to be a nun. Nuns had to listen to priests and wear layers of black cloth and stiff wimples that made it hard to turn their heads. Still, if nuns went far far away and became missionaries, they were almost like priests. If she were a missionary, she could travel all over the world like St. Franziskus and baptize hundreds of thousands of pagans in India and China. Copyright © 1994 by Ursula Hegi

Bookclub Guide

Reading Group Discussion Points Why did Hegi choose a dwarf as her protagonist? How do the other characters respond to Trudi's "otherness"? How do you? What compels Trudi to unearth people's secrets? She uses these stories as a means of exchange and a tool for bartering, disclosing some secrets while holding back others, enhancing where she sees fit. What drives her to repeat and embellish the stories she hears? What need in her does it fulfill? Why, in contrast, does Trudi keep her own secrets hidden? How does her desire to possess secrets and her urge to tell stories change as the story progresses? Hegi portrays Trudi as a woman capable of both enormous rage and great compassion. The same woman who takes Max Rudnick a note which reads "I have seen you, and I find you too pitiful to consider," risks her life when she hides Jews in her cellar. How does Hegi reconcile these differences in her main character? When Trudi is fourteen years old, four schoolboys drag her into a barn and molest her. Trudi is profoundly affected -- in what ways does this immediately change her? How does it continue to shape her in the coming years? Is Trudi ever able to overcome it? How? During the war, Trudi risks her life and her father's by hiding Jews in their cellar. How does this forever transform her relationship to people? What impact do her actions have on the town, and how does it change her standing in Burgdorf? How does Hegi develop the character of Leo? He is a constant support beam to the townspeople and to Trudi -- how does he tie the story together? How are Leo and Trudi different from each other, and in what ways are they similar? As Nazism encroaches on Burgdorf, Hegi's characters are confronted with moral dilemmas that go far beyond their ordinary experience. What are the different ways in which the townspeople react? What reasons does Hegi suggest for their varying emotions and actions? What do you think you might have done differently in their place? After Michael Abramowitz is taken away and beaten by Nazis, his wife has a thought that she never voices: "Given a choice, she would rather be the one who was persecuted than the one who did the persecuting." Do you think this is a feeling shared by other Jews during the war? By ordinary Germans? How would you choose? We do not learn until late in the story that Emil Hesping is the unknown benefactor. We discover that all the years he has been giving gifts to the people of Burgdorf, he has been embezzling money from the gymnasium. How do you feel when he is killed for removing Hitler's unwelcome statue from the town square? The unknown benefactor symbolically counteracts some of the pain Hitler's tyranny has caused. What is Hegi saying about the relation of good deeds to justice? After the war, many of Burgdorf's townspeople refuse to speak of the war years, pretending that they took no part in the war's evils. What compels them to participate in this complicity of silence? What do you believe can happen to a people when they collectively bury a memory? What purpose does it serve to bring out the truth and to never forget it? What is the significance of making Trudi and her father the town librarians? Why do you think Hegi uses a library as her novel's principal setting? How are Burgdorf's women affected by their country's history? Think of Renate Eberhardt, who is turned in by her Nazi son; Ingrid, the young woman searching for divinity; Jutta, the strong and beautiful wife of Klaus Malteri Hanna, the -- baby Trudi loves too much; Eva Sturm, who was not protected by her husband, Alexander. What pain and atrocities are visited on the women specifically? What vision of human nature does Stones from the River express? Does Hegi perceive human beings as fundamentally good, evil, or indifferent? As immutable or capable of transformation? In Stones from the River, Hegi uses both stones and the river symbolically. What significance does the phrase "stones from the river" acquire in the course of the novel, both for Trudi and the reader? How does Trudi use the stones as a means of self expression? What does the river mean to Trudi, and how does Hegi develop it as a metaphor?

From Our Editors

A charming and quirky novel set in a small German town and spanning the two World Wars, Stones from the River follows the story of Trudi Montag, a dwarf. Living in Nazi Germany isn't easy for Trudi, but neither is living with her slowly teetering on the edge of insanity mother, or seeing her best friend, Georg, dressed as a girl and continually humiliated by his parents who wanted a girl. Ursula Hegi has crafted a deftly-woven tale that at once evokes sympathy for Trudi and enhances the true deformity of the Nazi Party. Hegi is also the author of Floating in My Mother's Palm.

Editorial Reviews

Suzanne Ruta The New York Times Book Review Rich and lively...This moving, elegiac novel commands our compassion and respect for the wisdom and courage to be found in unlikely places, in unlikely times.