After the war, expellees from the East came to Northern Germany. Nowadays, it's the people who have fled the big cities. Dörte Hansen tells of a traditional farming region which has offered refuge for generations.
Altes Land is an idyllic fruit-growing region near Hamburg, rich in cherry and apple trees. This northern German landscape provides the backdrop for Dörte Hansen's first novel, which became a literary surprise success in 2015. It was on best-seller lists for weeks and was enthusiastically devoured by readers of all ages.
It was here, in this rural region, that the East Prussian aristocrat Hildegard von Kamcke moved after the Second World War. She arrived there in 1945 as a displaced person and found refuge on a centuries-old traditional farm. But she was not welcome.
"'How many more of yez Polacks are comin' here anyhow?,' asked the local farmer's wife, who reluctantly granted her accommodation, in Low German. Her entire house was full of refugees. It was enough already."
Refugees for generations
Hildegard von Kamcke does not arrive alone in northern Germany. Her five-year-old daughter Vera comes with her. And she also becomes the protagonist of the novel, as the plot spans seven decades. Vera will never leave the farmhouse, even if she never really settles in there: "This big cold house that she clung to like moss."
At some point she becomes lady of the manor yet still remains an outsider. The stigmatization of being a refugee will stay with her for life: "One felt like it too, like a pack, like a refugee pack, like stinking Polacks, even later."
But that is only one level of the novel. There is a second main character who, 60 years after Vera, ends up in the Altes Land: Anne, a young woman from Hamburg, is also someone who has fled, having escaped her marriage after she caught her husband with another woman. Unannounced, the young woman turns up one day on Vera's doorstep, accompanied by her three-year-old child. They are in search of refuge.
Anne is Vera's niece, the daughter of Vera's 14-year-younger half-sister. Emotionally, they are quite distant from one another. With Vera and Anne, two generations with very different historical backgrounds meet. But as different as both women are, something seems to secretly connect them. "She didn't know much about her niece, but she knew a refugee when she saw one."
Anne has also fled, from the city, from a bourgeois-oriented life. In Hamburg's Ottensen district, which has developed into a dignified, high-priced shopping hub, the social pressure to conform is intense. The young mother of a three-year-old boy feels forced to comply with these standards.
"She bought a roll for him and a cappuccino to go for herself, then pushed his stroller in the direction of Fischers Park, joining the trek of Ottensen's Organic Moms, who streamed out of their townhouses every day to air out their offspring. Cappuccinos in hand, they carried their shopping from the organic supermarket in the nets of their premium strollers, whose pure-wool foot muffs each contained a small child holding something soggy made from whole grain."
Long-standing on best-seller lists
Anne's escape to the country becomes a search for a self-determined life. This is what she has in common with her Aunt Vera. Dörte Hansen describes the lives of the two as parallel stories until the biographies begin to overlap. It is her own personal experience that lends the novel its authenticity.
The author knows what she is writing about. She knows Hamburg, where she studied and worked as an editor. And she also knows the Altes Land well, where she lived for many years and studied the area and its people. And, as a native of North Frisia, she grew up with Low German, which is sprinkled throughout her book. High German was her first "foreign language" at school.
Dörte Hansen's first novel was number one on best-seller lists for many months in 2015. Until then, Hansen, who holds a doctorate in linguistics, had worked primarily as a cultural journalist for the North German Broadcasting (NDR) in Hamburg.
North German cultural landscape
Hansen’a narrative language is visually strong and trenchant, which she probably owes to her journalistic background. Country life is not glorified; there is no false romanticization. With a somewhat bitingly mocking tone, she looks at the life in the countryside in both a loving and critical way.
Her historically-founded novel is both amusing and profound. The homelessness of the refugees today is the same as it was in the previous century following the Second World War: How they fare is always a question of humanity. That is also what has made the book so successful.
Dörte Hansen: This House Is Mine, St. Martin's Press/Macmillan, (German title: Altes Land, 2015). English translation: Anne Stokes.
Born in Husum, Frisia in 1964, Dörte Hansen came late to her vocation as a professional novelist. She worked as an author and radio reporter for various radio stations for many years. She has been a culture editor for NDR since 2012, while also writing very successful books. Her best-selling debut novel, This House Is Mine, was named "Favorite Book of the Year" by German independent booksellers in 2015. Her second book, Mittagsstunde, will be published in October 2018.