Her dashing husband is a most unusual exile, a baron who fled from Russia to Germany, trading his own motherland for his own fatherland. She’s a refugee of another sort, a stifled American aristocrat who comes alive thanks to a healthy bank account and the lush freedoms of 1920s Europe.
But while their romance is thoroughly modern by the standards of their era, the future pushes them away from their sophisticated, upper-class lives.
Baron Heinrich Alexis Nikolai von Hoyningen-Huene will join the German Army. The former Aimée Ellis of Hartford, Conn., will lose – or at least hide – some of her carefree nature. And they both will be deep mysteries to their daughter until she opens a long-shut box to find her father’s love letters. Along with other writings, they’re tickets to a remote man she never knew and a mother she didn’t fully understand.
To Sigrid MacRae, her “worn, hard-pressed, practical” mother turns out to be, in Aimée’s own words, “head-over-heels in love.” And her father, the baron with the endless name, is alive with fun: “Won’t this be an historic night: Miss Mayflower flirting with the ‘Hun,’” he jokes in a 1928 letter. An American and a German: Who’d ever imagine such a thing?
MacRae has many more surprises to come as she unravels the history of her most unusual family. She tells the story, partly her family’s and partly her own, in the lovely and poignant new book A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany.
MacRae, who co-authored a previous book about an alliance between American spies and German resisters in World War II, is an elegant writer with a sharp eye for revealing details in the letters left by her parents. She’s such an appealing companion that readers will forgive her for getting moony at times over the trappings of young love. And in her defense, she may have inherited this trait.
Indeed, the besotted Aimée and Heinrich themselves provide the liveliest prose in “A World Elsewhere” as they tease each other during their early romance and sound as starry-eyed as Romeo and Juliet.
“I held up traffic for half an hour,” Heinrich rhapsodizes from Italy, “having fallen into the profoundest of meditations in the middle of the street.... Was any other world so beautiful or any other life so sweet!” Then there’s Aimée, nicknaming a friend “Squeedunk” and raving about how “life is a beautiful dream.”
While they have each other, plus friends for her and family for him, they’re still outsiders at the home they make in Germany. Heinrich is a Baltic German, from a clan with long-ago German roots and more recent ties to tsarist Russia, and he’s far from his childhood home in St. Petersburg. Aimée is an American on German soil, trying to run a farm, as the Nazis begin to rise and the Depression deepens: “Conditions have become terrifying.”
Soon, both husband and wife are marching, one fighting for fatherland and one anxiously searching for safety, and “A World Elsewhere” becomes a vivid tale of voyages through war-torn Europe.
Aimée survives the war and the aftermath. The book includes a photo of her as she visits the Great Wall of China in 1984. Her brilliant smile suggests how far she’s come from the depressed Hartford girl of her childhood, and it hints at the lovestruck young woman she used to be.
As an adult, MacRae is dazzled by what she learns about her mother’s past. But one of Aimée’s children – almost certainly MacRae herself, although she’s vague – gets a hint at the age of 7 about what lies beneath when Aimée sings a silly song about a “rubber dolly.”
“Once, in the dark ages, this unfailing arbiter of all things had been a little girl, doing childish things, and she had not forgotten how,” McRae writes. “The curtain was going up on someone who had always been there, just buried under sadness, exhaustion, and troubles.”
It’s another reminder that worlds elsewhere are much closer than we think.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.