The Past, Distant and Less So

The Windeby Puzzle: History and Story – by Lois Lowry
Clarion Books, 2023

There are contemporary children’s books that, instead of following trends, challenge them. It’s hardly a surprise that Lois Lowry, the author of so many works that ask young readers to think about difficult issues, has once again made a memorable contribution to literature. The Windeby Puzzle suggests different possibilities about the life of a young person that ended during the Iron Age, in the first century C.E. Rather than writing a straightforward historical fiction, Lowry imagines who the adolescent, whose body was found in a peat bog in Germany in 1952, could have been. She frames stories about the events of their life, as well as suggesting their motives presented through narration of their interior lives, as well.  In alternating chapters, Lowry herself steps forward and describes the process through which she tries to recreate the past, acknowledging that she would never be able to accurately do so in the pre-modern setting of the book.  Most important, she encourages readers to think about both the limits and the potential rewards of reconstructing a distant past.

Lowry is specific in admitting that her construction of a feminist character, based on the time when the Windeby body was believed to have been female, is thoroughly anachronistic. We cannot impose the standards of justice and equality which people have come to expect today on a time when people’s lives were completely constrained by gender, glass, geographic setting, and other unchangeable factors.  But on the other hand, the fertile exercise of thinking about how a particular individual might have responded to those limitations is legitimate, as long as we understand the difference between literally, or just figuratively, rewriting the past. The dialogue, description, and poetry of her writing is, as usual, engaging and also beautiful, even when she addresses tragedy.

Everyone approaches a book in a different way.  This is in no way a criticism of Lowry’s achievement, but I could not avoid one disturbing connection that struck me from the beginning of the novel/meditation on history. It is 1952 in Germany. Workers cutting peat come across a body. They are disturbed. The bone they have come upon is not from an animal, but a human being. Perhaps it is evidence of a crime. They call the police.  This scene takes place a mere seven years after the end of World War II, and of the Holocaust.  The remains of thousands of Jews, sometimes their bones but sometimes only ashes, lie beneath the earth.  While some of the death camps were located in Eastern Europe, others, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, were in Germany.  The people living in the vicinity of the camps were well aware of what was happening inside them. (This perspective even seems validated by an anecdote, on the website of the Penn Museum, about a World War II era bog find which was confused with a murder by the SS.

To me the contradiction of finding Windeby girl/boy, the zeal with which archeologists sought to determine how his or her life had ended, has an ironic shadow.  So many stories of lives cut short, as young or younger than the person’s at Windeby, deserve to be recovered and remembered, and many authors and historians have devoted their careers to that goal.  Sometimes the distant past seems less threatening to explore than the much more recent one, which, in 1952, was less the subject of inquiry than of deliberate denial.

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