Sebastian: Christoph Fischer
Courage is defined as the “ the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain without fear. But, it can mean even more. Once that initial fear or obstacle is defined and the person overcomes that hindrance, drawback or impediment, something has to take over to keep them going. Handicaps are defined as conditions that restrict a person’s ability to function physically, mentally or socially. If convinced by others that you are incapable of handling specific situations or brainwashed into thinking either by listening to the voices of others or low self-esteem that you cannot embark on the career of your choice because of your limitations, then your whole life will be dealing with one handicap after another.
Sebastian is a uniquely crafted story that has many layers and characters that often appear to have many flaws. Each character striving so hard to find a place in the world so filled with hate, prejudice and the threat of war, that they often overlook the simple things in life like family, joy and just love. Sebastian is a young teenage boy who likes so many others does not dwell on an injury when there are more important things to concentrate on. However, not focusing on the pain in his left leg and hiding the fact that the leg was infected cost him more than any young teen should have to endure. This accident that caused his injury and the final result was his leg was amputated causing his family to feel that he can no longer contribute to their family business, not able to run their family grocery store and limited, as one doctor would say to few careers. Vienna, Austria is the setting and the loss of his leg had nothing to do with his brilliant mind.
Parents that seemed on the outside to be happy yet when you pull apart the many lawyers of Franz and Vera Schrieber, what you mind find will surprise you. Franz, the owner of this grocery store has many responsibilities and feels the pressure of having to not only provide for his immediate family but his elderly parents who reside with him. His son’s accident although represented a weakness in the child and although he cares for him he neglected visiting him in the hospital leaving his care to his invalid mother and grandparents.
With his father’s family living at home, his friends and the many employees that would come through their door the author graphically depicts pre-war Vienna, the struggles of so many families, the lives of many people during the time of the war and the end when the Monarchy was taken down. Just how would this man manage to fend for his family and find time to care for his wife and son? Responsibility can be defined in this case as “ Involving personal accountability or ability to act without guidance or superior authority: a responsible position within the firm.” Franz treated each day and his family more like a business and was so concerned with his wants and needs he overlooks what is happening right in front of him. Vera, his wife is the definition of a woman who has no idea of what is happening in the world around her, current events elude her and working in the store and greeting customers when needed her only outlet for interacting with people. The author’s research into the war, the government of Austria and the arrival of technology and the changes some were trying to make are extensive. Many people do not understand change, Vienna like many other countries embraced a class system and often those employed as household workers had to be of other faiths in order to work in certain homes. From the Five Star author of “The Luck of the Weissensteinters,” comes another five star novel, which deals with many of the same layers, themes and ideals. Sebastian focuses on a family that needs to embrace their identities as individuals, prejudice among their own and others, fears, deceit, lies and even betrayals and hope.
When Sebastian is told about his infection from a rusty nail and the fact that because it was not treated the end result would be losing his leg, we wonder how he will deal with the news. Vera, his mother is fearful that when told the young man would not be able to handle the news, not sleep and requests the operation be done that night and not in the morning as the doctor suggested. Convincing the doctor the young man goes through this operation only to prove that not only he is resilient, smart and courageous but will not succumb to his illness and hopes to attend school and take his exams.
Vera, as well as the medical situation that lingers throughout the story that takes twists and turns along with the plots and subplots to help define a character that goes from being weak to growing an inner strength and beauty. Sebastian’s story is the story of his family, the women who enter his life and the war that surrounds and defines them all. Living above a grocery store reminds me of growing up in the South Bronx, in a small apartment with my grandparents, sister and parents over a grocery store, beauty parlor and candy store. Picturing all of these people in this enclosed environment brings to light just how difficult the times were and how this young man who only wanted to bring some joy into the lives of others was only embraced by one person, his grandfather the original owner of the store. Sebastian’s injury did not affect his mind, ability to learn or his will to succeed. His grandfather, Oscar was his champion and was there for him every step of the way tutoring him and making sure that his lessons were done and that he would pass his exams. Testing him, teaching him the material gave not only Sebastian the impetus to go on but his grandfather a reason for getting up in the morning. His grandmother, Rebecca had a bad back and were ability to do anything was limited as was his mother Vera whose conditions changed on a momentary basis. Leaving the hospital put a strain on his family as his mother wanted to devote her time caring for her son whose leg would require more surgery and she took blame for the complications.
Vera needs an ally to bring her out and show her she can do more than just take care of the store and deal with problems. Enter Mathilde and her family who seems to have influence in many important places. Suggesting she join a women’s group whose goal is to help women understand and fight for the right to vote and voice their opinion, Vera agrees but stands to the side the entire time. With the help of Theresa, Mathilde’s mother in law, she begins to thrive in many different ways and learn more about herself. In walks what is supposed to be relief and help but turns out to be more than Vera can handle. An eighteen year old girl named Ingeborg is sent to work in the home and where needed in the store. Hoping to become more than just an employee she bides her time, endears herself within the folds of the family and eventually hopes to replace Vera in Franz’s bed. But, Vera might be naïve and not suspect anything until her friend Mathilde enlightens her and what happens is right out of a soap opera. Replaced but not really knowing why Eva comes to work for the family and Sebastian is taken with her But her secret is well kept as to why she was discharged from her past job and the situation heats up until she leaves and is replaced by Margit and her mother. Here is where the story gets really hot and very interesting as Vera’s friends will help change the dynamics of her life and she becomes involved in séances, the afterlife and communicating with the dead.
The primary cast is Jewish and the questions raised are many as the family needs to cater to people of many nationalities, lives are unsettled and a country is about to undergo many changes. WWI is about to begin and so many men have enlisted, are fighting for their country and the war has caused Sebastian to have to step up before his time as Franz is drafted and on the front lines fighting. Each family member seems to have his/her own agenda and when Oscar passes away leaving them without his wisdom and guidance Rebecca and Vera are left to deal with the store, Franz’s absence and Sebastian. But, Sebastian decides for himself with the help of a special nurse where he wants his life to go and school is not an option it is his choice.
As things changed and Eva left and a mother and daughter came to live with them Sebastian soon came to fall for Margit and her mother, although depressed, loud and abusive at times found her way into the family on a limited basis. With her mother hiding her own treasure, her distrust for the Schreiber family and people in general the plot takes on a different tone as the war is in full swing, the draft has lowered its expectations as Sebastian has now left what was a great position in a library to have to teach school. People are cruel, no allowances for his disability made and the family seems to becoming unglued as Eva reappears, Sebastian and Margit have a child but then things change.
Joining her two friends and others in a séance Vera thinks that her husband is gone, her job now to care for her granddaughter and when both the mother and grandmother disappear without due cause or any hint she is left to deal with the fallout. Just where did they go and how did they get there takes the reader on a remarkable train ride from Vienna to Galicia where we learn the probable fate her Markit’s father, who is now living in their home, what their feelings towards the Jewish people are and the history behind what happened in Poland, Russia and to the Jewish people. But, the times are changing and Piroska, Markit’s mother decides to venture out on her own with the help of some of her husband’s contacts to find out where he is and if he is coming back to her. What she learns is quite startling whether she believes what they tell her remains to be seen. Finding her way back to her daughter, where they were staying would only be a stop gap for her search is never ending, she is relentless and her feelings for her husband regardless of what he is doing overpower her.
An ending so dramatic and heart wrenching you won’t see it common and characters that are so true to lift you will definitely identify with many of them. Betrayals, lies, deceits, family loyalties tested, the human spirit quite fragile and an ending that will surprise the reader and a group of people so courageous, filled with hope that their journey back to Vienna would be successful. Sometimes a miscommunication can change your life. Find out how when you read this outstanding novel. Courage: What’s your definition?
Fran Lewis: reviewer