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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Ursula Hegi

At a glance
Hotel of the Saints
by Ursula Hegi

Scribner
176 pages, $$12
paperback

"Ursula Hegi grew up in a small German town."

That's how the typical biography of the former Eastern Washington University creative writing professor begins. What a wonderful tool understatement is.

Hegi, whose short-story collection "Hotel of the Saints" is the April reading selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club, was born Ursula Koch in 1946 on the Rhine River near Dusseldorf. When she was just a child, Germany was rebuilding from the most destructive war of the 20th century.

Dusseldorf, being an industrial center with key steel factories, suffered in particular from Allied bombing attacks. On one night, April 22-23, 1944, 600 bombers dropped 2,000 tons of TNT on the city. An estimated 2,000 houses and 56 industrial buildings were damaged or destroyed, 900 people killed and 600 more injured.

Hegi was born, she once said, "surrounded by evidence of war - bombed-out buildings, fatherless children, men who had legs or arms missing."

Yet whenever she asked why things were the way they were, she was never given a straight answer.

"It felt like a real taboo to even ask questions," Hegi said in 1994. "And then when we did, we would get answers like, 'We all suffered a lot.' We would be told about the hunger, about the cold, about the fear of the bombs, about people people sitting in basements."

But never about the specifics of the war nor about Germany's role in it.

And Hegi particularly learned nothing about the death camps.

As she wrote in her 1997 nonfiction book "Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America," "My parents and teachers only gave me reluctant and evasive answers about the war. Never about the Holocaust."

It should come as no surprise that Hegi has written a lot about her native country. Among her eight books, which have earned her awards ranging from a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to two New York Times Notable Book mentions, "Floating in My Mother's Palm" tells the story of a young girl growing up in a German town where Hitler is never mentioned. Her most ambitious novel, "Stones From the River," uses the dwarf Trudi Montag to examine the Germany spanning both world wars.

And her latest book, "Trudi & Pia" (Atheneum, 40 pages, $16.95), is a children's story that follows Trudi as she meets another dwarf, Pia, who is a circus lion tamer.

"The older I get," she said in 1994, "the more I realize that we are connected with our country of origin, even if our values are totally different from the values that created that situation. Since I cannot turn my back on my country of origin, I need to try and understand it. For me, it's been a journey of talking about and discovering and dealing with it, instead of leaving it behind."

But Hegi also has written much about the United States, which she emigrated to in 1965 and became a naturalized citizen of in 1967. She became Ursula Hegi through her marriage that same year. She attended the Univ. of New Hampshire, graduating in 1979 with both a bachelor's and a master's degree. Her marriage ended the same year, 1984, she accepted a teaching job at Eastern.

Her novel "The Vision of Emma Blau," for example, spans the 20th century in telling the tale of German immigrants. The book, the New York Times said, "is about legacies and hopes, curses and constraints: the places we come from and the families we build, the dreams that shape our future and the stories we tell ourselves about the past."

Closer to the Inland Northwest, Hegi's novel "Salt Dancers" is set in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene. And the final story of April's read, "Hotel of the Saints," is called "Lower Crossing," which takes its name from the West Central neighborhood that sits on the north side of the Spokane River.

Hegi was hurrying to finish it even as the book was being put together.

"I really wanted to use it," she said. "Lower Crossing is the neighborhood where I lived for several years, and even though it is not my story, the details of the river, and living near the river, are there."

While Hegi now lives in NewYork, two hours north of New York City, she lived in Spokane between the time she began teaching at Eastern and until she left following her biggest moment of fame in 1997.

That was the year Oprah Winfrey chose "Stones From the River" as a featured read in her book club. Hegi appeared in the Oprah show on April 8 and, prompted by her appearance ("Oprah" was then broadcast daily to 20 million viewers) Simon & Schuster handled Hegi as if she were the literary equivalent of . . . well, not John Grisham, but close to it.

The company reprinted 1.2 million copies of "Stones From the River" in hardback and 50,000 copies in paper. The result was good in that it gave Hegi the freedom to write full time; it was bad in that it intruded on her closely held sense of privacy.

But the good, in the end, far outweighed the bad.

"I love the teaching, I really do,'' Hegi said in 2001. "But I also love having as much time as I can for my writing.''

Her love of writing is especially apparent in "Hotel of the Saints." The 11 stories detail the range of women's experience, from the tourist preparing for a Mexican suicide to a young girl in Trieste facing the confusing world of adult passions, from a woman having to put down her beloved dog (and all the memories the dog evokes) to a shattering four-page, first-person confession of a domestic violence victim.

"(A)t her best, Hegi is a compelling storyteller with a capacious heart, irreverent wit and a keenly observant eye,'' said a reviewer for the Milwaukee Sentinal Journal. "She finds meaning in the smallest wrinkles of everyday existence, never patronizing her characters or her readers. Her tiny canvases teem with life."

Not that such comments mean all that much to her.

"Reviews and praise can make me feel good," she said in 1990, "but that's not the most important thing. . . . I think the thing that has to be there first is that you are getting whatever confirmation you need from the inside. That's the stuff that keeps you going."

It's kept Hegi going since she was a 6-year-old girl, living among the testaments to war's fury and thinking of stories to tell.

"I'm a writer," Hegi said. "I see it more as something I am, not so much as something I do."

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