Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Children and Fire includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Ursula Hegi's Burgdorf Cycle encompasses 4 novels set in the fictional German village of Burgdorf: Stones from the River, Floating in my Mother’s Palm, The Vision of Emma Blau, and now Children and Fire.
Children and Fire is the story of a single day, February 27, 1934, exactly one year after the burning of the Reichstag (German Parliament.) It is a day that will forever transform the lives of the townspeople.
At the core of this remarkable novel is the question how one teacher, Thekla Jansen—gifted and joyful, passionate and inventive—can become seduced by propaganda during the early months of Hitler’s regime and encourage her 10-year-old students to join the Hitler Youth, believing that membership—hikes and songs and bonfires and uniforms—will be a step toward better schools, better apprenticeships, a better future.
How can a woman we admire choose a direction we don't admire? So much has changed for Thekla, and the people of Burgdorf in the past year. Thekla's lover, Emil Hesping, is sure the Nazis set fire to the Parliament building to frame the Communists. But Thekla believes what she hears on the radio, that the Communists set the fire, and she's willing to relinquish some of her freedoms to keep her teaching position. She has always taken her moral courage for granted, but when each silent agreement chips away at that courage, she knows she must reclaim it.
Hegi funnels pivotal moments in history through the experiences of individual characters: Thekla's mother who works as a housekeeper for a Jewish family, and her employers, Michel and Ilse Abramowitz; Thekla's mentally ill father; Trudi Montag, the librarian, and her father Leo Montag;
Fräulein Siderova, midwife to the dying; and the students who adore their young teacher.
Hegi writes along the edge where sorrow and bliss meet, showing her readers how one society—educated, cultural, compassionate—can slip into a reality that’s fabricated by propaganda and controlled by fear; how a surge of national unity can be manipulated into the dehumanization of a perceived enemy and the justification of torture and murder.
Gorgeously rendered and emotionally taut, Children and Fire confirms Ursula Hegi’s position as one of the most distinguished writers of her generation. Her books have captivated critics and readers alike. They are on academic reading lists and continue to be adopted by book groups.
A bi-cultural writer, Ursula didn’t plan to set half of her work in Europe and the other half in the Americas—but that's how the pages have opened for her, reflecting what it is like to be an immigrant.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Thekla thinks she can wait the Nazis out—that she will eventually reclaim her moral courage. Of course, we know differently. How does your knowledge of history affect your view of Thekla’s circumstances and the decisions she makes?
- Children and Fire takes place over the course of one day, with flashbacks interspersed throughout. How does the novel’s structure influence your understanding of the events in the book? How does Thekla’s past inform her response to the events of February 17, 1934?
- What prejudices existed within Burgdorf well before Hitler’s reign began? What obstacles did Thekla face due to her gender and social class? How might Thekla’s social standing change if her true parentage were made public?
- Being a good teacher is incredibly important to Thekla. What do you think makes a teacher effective? Do you think teachers have responsibilities to their students beyond the curriculum? Can you explain what they are? Do you believe Thekla is a good teacher?
- On page 97 of Children and Fire, the author writes, “Messages change. Right and wrong can trade places, fall out of fashion.” How do you interpret this? Can you think of an incident when you were forced to reexamine your perceptions of right and wrong? What is the impact of propaganda on society—past and present?
- Thekla believes what she hears on the government controlled radio, that the Nazis kept the Communists from taking over Germany, and she's willing to relinquish some of her freedoms to feel protected. Of course the Nazis won't last, she tells Emil. They're too coarse, too loud. But for the time being, she tries to adapt. Emil is far more vocal in his disapproval of Hitler’s regime. Does he have less to lose than Thekla?
- Addressing Fräulein Siderova in her head, Thekla says, “Do (the students) think I betrayed you? Because I did. No, I didn’t. Because what else could I have done?” (p. 72) Do you think Thekla wronged Fräulein Siderova by accepting her job?
- When the students pick on Eckart, one of the weaker students in the Thekla's class, she thinks, “if you step back, you are lost. The urge of the pack will escalate.” (p. 191) How is Thekla’s classroom a microcosm of the attitudes in Germany and in the world at large? What is the allure of losing yourself to “crowd mentality”? What is the danger?
- Bruno is a smart, talented little boy who might have grown out of his childhood isolation and prospered in another time and place. What do you think leads to his suicide? Is there anything his parents or Thekla could have done to prevent his death?
- Why do you think the Hitler Youth is so alluring to the boys in Thekla’s class? Can you emphasize with them? Do you believe they are aware of the moral implications of participating?
- How much change can one person affect? If Thekla had spoken out against the government, could her voice have made any difference? Discuss experiences when you have raised your voice despite your fear or discomfort.
- Does Thekla redeem herself at the end of the novel by vowing to be more outspoken with her students, to teach them lessons that may be seen as subversive? What do you think will become of Thekla and her students?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- Explore how this novel is related to the other 3 novels in the Burgdorf Cycle, Floating in My Mother's Palm (1990), Stones from the River (1994), and The Vision of Emma Blau (2000.) Trace the path of your favorite characters from one novel to another. For example, Trudi Montag, the librarian, is a major character in Stones from the River and a supporting character in the 3 other novels of the Burgdorf Cycle. Bruno Stosick, the young chess genius in Thekla's class, has a major role in Children and Fire and a supporting role in Stones from the River.
- Thekla loves to recite poems with her students. She has a number of favorite poems that she teaches to inspire her students and enrich their education. Share a poem with your book group and discuss why you choose it.
- Friedrich Schiller's poem, "The Diver," runs through the novel like a current. Why do you think Ursula Hegi chose this poem? What is its impact on the students? On the teacher? Online, you can find several translations of the entire poem.
- Thekla takes her boys on field trips to teach them about nature. Weather permitting, hold your book club outdoors. Take note of how your perceptions change when your conversations take place outside.
- Children and Fire is a fictionalized account of the events leading up to World War II. In her research, Ursula Hegi drew on many resources to make her fiction authentic. Go to your library or online to do your own research into that time period. Discuss with your book group what you found out.
- Thekla must research her heritage for sinister reasons, and by the end of the book she unravels a well-kept secret about her lineage that she may or may not have sensed all along. Thankfully, we live in a time and place where looking into our own history can be fulfilling. Research your family tree and share what you discover with the group.