Play to the Angel by Maurine F. Dahlberg;
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2000; $16
The most memorable book I have read in a long time is Play to the Angel. Beautifully written characters breathe life into this interesting plot. The city of Vienna is well described, and the individual locations are so convincing I almost expect to see the dark interior of Cafe Adler or the snowy streets when I open my eyes.
This book, by Maurine F. Dahlberg, is the story of a girl named Greta and her dream to become a concert pianist. Greta's big brother, Kurt, is a talented pianist, despite his life-threatening illness. He tutors Greta, and together they play on a wonderful piano. Then, Kurt dies. Greta's mother is heartbroken and withdraws from her life. To make matters even worse, Greta's best friend moves away Greta is all alone, except for her dream. Even that is threatened when her grieving mother decides to sell their precious piano.
Greta's last tie to her beloved brother seems about to snap until a strange piano teacher moves in nearby. This mysterious man, named Herr Hummel, won't reveal the secrets of his past, except that he comes from Germany and left because of the growing Nazi threat. Herr Hummel wins Greta's trust in a different way Instead of confiding in her, he convinces her mother to keep the piano and finds a concert for Greta to play in. At the edge of success, Greta's dream is once more postponed as Hitler invades Vienna and she discovers the truth of Herr Hummel's dangerous past.
The black and white of the history is richly supplemented by the colorful characters and places. The picture of how Kurt's death broke apart Greta's family is both believable and touching. Admirable characters add a warm element of love. Greta's perseverance, Herr Hummel's generosity, and the friendliness of Greta's schoolmates build the sense of community. As the story progresses, the flaws of the characters are revealed, but that makes them more interesting and attractive, not less.
One part of the story I can connect to is the pain of losing your best friend. Even though I was only five when I moved away from my friend Jane, I still miss her all the time. The relationship between Greta and her dead brother is also very realistic. Fortunately, my wonderful younger brother Aaron is still alive, but the mixture of love, jealousy and admiration Greta experiences is very reminiscent of real siblings. To read the story of siblings so much like Aaron and me separated forever by death was a very moving part of this book.
Greta and I are the same age, and we are both growing up. Even with the trauma of her life, Greta is like me in so many ways. We both want to make friends, fit in, make our mothers proud, do well in school. If Greta were to live next door to me, I think we would be friends.
The one thing I disliked about this book was the climax. I thought the plot was good, but the whole climax took place in the last twenty pages of the book. The beautiful detail evaporated, and little pieces of the action got lost in the fast pace.
Despite this shortcoming, I would recommend Play to the Angel. A spotlight on an important historical event, it also brings to life a cast of realistic characters struggling toward bettering themselves.