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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Hitler's Niece

Ron Hansen

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To purchase Hitler's Niece

Title: Hitler's Niece
Author: Ron Hansen
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 310 pages
Availability: Hitler's Niece - US
Hitler's Niece - UK
Hitler's Niece - Canada

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Our Assessment:

C : dulled down and drawn out history, and surprisingly pedestrian sensationalism

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 10/10/1999 Peter Green
New York D+ 6/9/1999 Walter Kirn
The New Yorker B+ 4/10/1999 Daphne Merkin
The NY Times D 7/9/1999 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 3/10/1999 Richard Lourie
Salon C- 25/8/1999 Nan Goldberg
San Francisco Chronicle . 23/9/1999 David Kipen
Time . 20/9/1999 R.Z.Sheppard
The Village Voice B- 19/10/1999 Kathy Deacon

  Review Consensus:

  All have some difficulty with it, but the level of loathing varies greatly. The concern that Hitler is humanized here (and his later crimes ignored) worries them to varying degrees. All also make fun of aspects of Hansen's writing, but can generally find redeeming qualities to it as well.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Well, no matter how you're inclined to see the killer of 6 million, Ron Hansen's new novel, Hitler's Niece, offers at least a passage or a page to back you up and another to offend you. Taking on the ultimate loser's game of fictionalizing, and faintly humanizing, the man whom no novelist would dare invent if he hadn't existed in the first place, Hansen has produced a book so grossly inadequate to its infamous subject that even its title sounds like a bad joke." - Walter Kirn, New York

  • "This is a novel that verges on being an audacious folly, but when it locks on the weird, doomed couple at its center the effect is mesmerizing." - Daphne Merkin, The New Yorker

  • "(An) inept and voyeuristic novel." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Hitler comes back to life on these pages, and I don't quite know whether to say Oy or Bravo." - Richard Lourie, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) distinctly uninspired rendering of Adolf Hitler's weird and ominous relationship with his young niece Geli." - Nan Goldberg, Salon

  • "The author introduces each character in Hitler's inner circle with a torrent of adjectives, as if he might be working from photographs. All too rarely, though, does Hansen come back to reinforce these descriptions or deepen them. It's understandable that he may have wanted to stay close to the historical record for fear of sensationalizing his subject, but the result is a clammy, forbidding book." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Still, this is a painless way to learn a little history and enjoy such priceless dialogue as "She touched the swastika and said, 'Won't the girls at school be envious.'" " - R.Z.Sheppard, Time

  • "Despite its success at times in evoking private scenes among Hitler's inner circle, the novel has too much of the deadpan literalness of semifictionalized reportage." - Kathy Deacon, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Much-lauded author Ron Hansen tackles a controversial small historical mystery in his novel, Hitler's Niece. The niece in question, Geli Raubal, was born in 1908 and died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in 1931. At the time Hitler was rumored to be having an affair with her. She died of a gunshot wound, in what was ruled a suicide, but many (including Hansen) speculate that there was foul play behind the deed and that she was, in fact, murdered. The subject of a recent biographical work by Ronald Hayman (Hitler & Geli) and a Vanity Fair article by Ron Rosenbaum (incorporated into his book, Explaining Hitler), the affair (however one takes it) has aroused considerable interest.
       While there are obvious problems with tackling Hitler as a fictional subject, this particular episode from his life would appear to have the makings of a decent story. In an Author's Note at the end of the book Hansen mentions that in fact he originally planned to write a short story based on this material, but that when he discussed it with John Irving (a notoriously expansive writer himself) Irving said: "You may have a novel there." And so a novel it became.
       Hansen has taken his mandate very seriously. In a way he should be commended for it, but in fiction it does not always serve the author's end to show such great concern for detail and historical truth. And here it ultimately misleads.
       The story is, very much, about Geli, with her odd Uncle Adolf (who is quite estranged from his family) showing up intermittently until he finally becomes the dominant figure in her life. Hitler first appears on the scene on one of his rare family visits to Linz, in 1908, after the baptism of young Geli. Chapter Two jumps five years ahead, Chapter Three another six, as the reader is treated to a rundown of Hitler's sorry life in those years. On it goes with Hansen's fictionalized history. He tries to embellish the record, trying to paint a vivid picture of the people and the times -- but zipping along it still reads more like a German History 101 course outline.
       Once Geli is in her mid and late teens she, at least, becomes (for a short while) the book's only three-dimensional character. Hansen dares give her a few wry and sly comments to make, and for a few chapters he has created a real character that might actually be of interest to the reader. Hitler's plodding, by comparison, is fairly unconvincing, and though everyone explains how in awe they are of him, and what great speeches he makes, Hansen fails to convey this convincingly. The gallery of Nazi acolytes has its moments, with a few of the more peripheral figures momentarily of interest, but Hansen is so careful and deliberate in setting the stage with the well-known Nazi figures that most of them are presented only in a fairly boring and straightforward (or simply off-putting) manner. An affair of sorts between Geli and Emil Maurice (Hitler's driver), vaguely permitted by the Führer, has its moments, but overall also fails to convince.
       Hitler obviously exerts a growing influence over Geli's life, subtly insinuating himself (Geli as metaphor for Germany may have been Hansen's intention, but he falls woefully short in making that work). Finally the sordid denouement comes, with Hitler having Geli pose for him, first decorously dressed but eventually in the nude. This escalates as Hitler finally lets his guard down and demands some sexual play from Geli (which naturally finds Hitler demanding to be on the receiving end of corporal punishment in some truly icky scenes). And eventually it leads to Hansen's turn on history as Geli meets her premature end.
       It has the makings of a decent story, and even in its outline it is not terrible. But Hansen strayed with the material, making only a not very fine mess of things. The characters are, for all of Hansen's flowery language, pasteboard thin. Ending in 1931 (save for a lengthy last chapter, called "Afterward"), when Nazi might was not yet in full flourish, Hansen also leaves his characters not quite fully formed. There is little of the tantalizing what might have been, nor the obvious what had to come. Hitler is obviously a tough character to handle; Hansen handles him quite well piecemeal (using quotes and material from the time), but he is unconvincing in showing us how Hitler became the man that he was by 1931. A mere recitation of historical events, and lots of fawning over him do not make a literary character. Similarly Geli, though at times convincing, remains an empty vessel whose motives are often inexplicable.
       Worse, regrettably, is the style of the writing. Hansen has his moments, but much of the book reads like a writing school exercise (one not yet subjected to the praise, or rather criticism of teacher and classmates). "For a fleeting, agonizing moment Hess was like a dog beseiged with thought," is one small example, complete with misspelling (that "i before e except after c" rule apparently vexing Hansen and his editors). On the same page we are introduced to Emil, whose "biceps bulged like coconuts" -- a simile one might accept in a high school fiction but simply won't fly in a real book. Elsewhere there is talk of summer nights in the mountains when "the air was filled with the scent of pine and snow and wildflowers" -- and while the air might smell of something associated with snow in wintertime, when it falls, snow certainly has no scent in the summer when it is melting on the ground. Throughout the book there is a wealth of adjectives covering a dearth of substance.
       Hansen tries very hard to sound authentic, down to referring to Vienna as Wien and Munich as München. He fares quite well with all his German, with only a few slips and oddities. Viennese Mayor Lueger has his name simplified by Hansen into "Lüger," not something the Mayor approved of. Hansen's suggestion that Geli was completely unfamiliar with the works of Goethe also seems highly unlikely.
       All in all Hansen does the history and details fairly well, but these alone fail to recreate the atmosphere of those times. The final historical leap -- Hansen's explanation of how Geli met her end -- is plausible if not fully convincing. Sadly, though, the reader hardly cares one way or another at that point. We all knew that Hitler was not a nice guy, after all, so Hansen has got to do a bit better than this.
       A strange, misguided effort, we cannot recommend this book.

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Hitler's Niece: Reviews: Ron Hansen: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Ron Hansen was born in 1947. A graduate of Creighton University, he went on to study at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, receiving an MFA in Creative Writing in 1974. He also has an M.A. in Spirituality from Santa Clara University, where he is now a Professor. Among his many awards is a Guggenheim Foundation grant, and his novel Atticus was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Award.

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