All That I Am is the story of the leftist resistance in Germany and the influences and consequences of its compatriots beginning in the 1920s and reaching into the early 21st century. The story is told from the perspective of two German resisters, one a highly respected activist – Ernst Toller – and the other a smaller yet observant member – Ruth Becker. While they both mostly bypass each other in this complicated maze of activists there is one person they both cherish above all others: Dora Fabien, a freedom loving key member of the resistance.
Toller’s story takes place in 1939 with him in exile in New York City, making corrections to his autobiography that he and Dora began before they were forced to flee Germany in 1933. Toller feels a desperate need to resurrect Dora, this great love of his life, and to tell her story so she is not forgotten to history as so many of the brave men and women working to bring the truth of Nazi Germany to the rest of the world have been. He feels he failed her during her life and must finally tell the whole truth as they saw it before the darkness that plagues him takes him under for good. As he goes back in time so do we.
Ruth is in Sydney, Australia in 2001, finding that, in her old age, she is less able to control the memories that surface unbidden. When she receives the original corrected autobiography of Toller, which had been hidden away and only recently discovered with her name on it, her past comes screaming into focus and often seems more real than the reality surrounding her. She not only remembers living and working with her strong, enigmatic cousin Dora but remembers the highs and lows of doing what they felt was right at whatever costs it brought. We see the high times of prosperity and purpose before they left Germany in 1933, Ruth’s marriage to the dashing and charismatic journalist Hans Wesemann, the hardships of exile in London and the deep need to continue their work under the continual and increasing threats by the Reich.
As the consequences of their work get deadlier, a devastating betrayal at the center of their group – one that Ruth is crushed that she didn’t see – brings the downfall and even death of many within the group. When Ruth escapes to live out her life without those that have supported and loved her, she highlights the life without roots of a continued exile. Her life goes on even as a part of her is always missing.
While the writing is beautiful, there are portions of All That I Am that are slow going, especially the portion dealing with the exiled resistance workers in London in the 1930s. Without having a strong background in the various leftist political parties of the time it can be kind of confusing to keep the various differences and beliefs in line with the story being told.
What I did enjoy was the character development of Toller, Ruth, Dora, Hans and a few secondary characters and the fact that most of them were actual people in history. For anyone who has a good understanding or love of German history and the political resistances that consumed the time period, this book is ideal. It is also worth a read for general lovers of history with a warning that the story does drag at times.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.