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By David Porter
Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1995
ISBN: 0-89107-824-X
283 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2014

The novel opens in July 1912. The main character is Tobias J. Burgate, Toby. He lives in Lancaster, England and belongs to a strong fundamentalist, Anabaptist sect, Saints of God. He is 17. His mother died when he was 5 and he’s been raised by his strict father.

His father’s had connection with a similar church in Vienna, and Gerhard Onkel, a Church member writes seeking a teacher of English to come and work in his school. Toby, despite his age, agrees to go there for a year.

These are difficult times in Vienna and war is looming over the whole area with Turkey, Serbia, and most of the Balkans seemingly on the brink of war which will likely end up involving Austria as well.

A second theme that comes to play in the novel is the virtual war going on in Vienna about the “new music” of the atonal school – Arnold Schonberg, Anton Berg, Anton von Webern, Igor Stravinsky and others. This theme enters the novel through a love interest with Sally and friendship with her friends who are all students in the new music school and movement.

Toby knows virtually nothing about music at all, but when he hears Sally playing Bach’s Gavotte. He has no idea what it is and rather shocks the music students. However, within the Saints of God community music, art, literature and such are seen as “emotional” ways of relating to God and highly suspect, so he’s had little experience with these arts knows nothing about them.

In any case, he begins to hang around a lot with the students, falls in love with Sally, and, in a very unrealistic and unbelievable manner, becomes a “fan” of the new music within a few weeks.

A third theme which is central to the novel is the life of Herr Gerhard Onkel, Toby’s host and his wife. They are members of the same religious group that Toby came from in England. However, we slowly learn that Gerhard is a vehement anti-Semite and is actually carrying out actions of vandalism at various Jewish businesses and homes, and he even seems to have plans for more direct violence against Jewish people themselves.

Frau Onkel does not share her husband’s anti-Semitism and even has a secret friendship with a Jewish woman who lives near-by. Her character in the novel is sort of an observer of what’s going on with her husband about whom she comments to Toby now and again. She challenges him to think through his faith very carefully, and in doing so she criticizes her husband saying: “He knows a lot about God, but I wonder whether he actually knows God. This becomes a driving theme for Toby for the rest of the novel.

What ultimately clarifies for him what this distinction means is his connection with Sally and the students and the famous musicians he meets. He sees in the riots and violence that befall them at their concerts, and their drive to create this music that they do not just know about and perform their music, the LIVE it. He eventually finds his experience with the musicians is important to him in understanding his religious life.

While I enjoyed the novel a great deal I think it wasn’t great literature. Most disturbing was Toby’s dramatic shifts in character especially in his nearly instant acceptance of and even love of the new atonal music. It just didn’t ring true.

I was also troubled by the inconsistencies I saw in the character of Herr Onkel. He is deeply religious, yet not much troubled by his anti-Semitism, and when his wife is murdered, he immediately ceases his anti-Semitic violence and stifles his violence. It was all too quick for me.

I must also admit, I didn’t read the novel “for itself.” I find that an unfortunate thing in my approach. Most books I read because I have chosen to read THAT PARTICULAR book for itself at that time. This book I read since I am trying to get a better handle on the beginnings of WWI in the eastern part of Europe and I was fairly sure the novel might have been helpful for this end. It really was. Not in tremendous detail, but it helped to underline the importance of understanding the role of the First and Second Balkan wars in the early part of the 20th century. However, I will joyfully admit I got very caught up in the story of Toby, his love for Sally and her friends, and especially the historical sections on the birth pains of the atonal musical school in Vienna in the 1912-13 period. The book is worth reading to get a sympathetic fictional look at that movement.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett