By Alex Wallace
I will admit to you that I only heard of Dennis Bock through a reddit thread about Canadian literature. He’s an author that hasn’t made many waves outside the true north, strong and free; it took a bit of googling to find a way to get a copy of the book to my home in Virginia. Nevertheless, the fact that he wrote an alternate history novel, one that I’ve never seen mentioned in the broader community, was interesting enough.
In terms of the actual alternate history, those who want some sort of daring new point of divergence will be disappointed. There is nothing in this book’s alternate history that we haven’t seen before: Hitler assassinated, a competent Fuhrer coming to power, Nazi nuclear weapons, ruined Britain, America flirting with fascism. In the hands of a lesser writer, all of this would be trite, but Bock makes all of this compelling by centering not kings, but peasants (as Sea Lion Press’ esteemed Liam Connell once said). In that sense, it reminds me strongly of Paul Leone’s In and Out of the Reich, in which a well-trod scenario is made original by changing not the history, but the perspective from which the story is told.
Bock, like a number of more mainstream writers that have made forays into alternate history, emphasizes the point of divergence much more than many ‘established’ writers in the genre do. Particularly, history diverges from our own when Georg Elser’s plot to kill Hitler in Munich in November 1939 succeeds. A number of chapters in this book are from Elser’s point of view, and Bock really dives into the psychology of what makes this man want to kill the most powerful man in his country. Elser is an interesting protagonist through whom so much of that paranoid, murderous state can be seen.
Bock makes an interesting narrative decision by alternating chapters between a ‘past’ in the 1940s and a ‘present’ in the 1960s. It’s a technique that reminded me strongly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, her famed ‘ambiguous utopia’ that uses such a framing to explore both her central character and the two different worlds between which he travels. The Good German has more central characters than The Dispossessed does, but the point is the same: to contrast sharply different worlds on two different continents.
Befitting Bock’s homeland, one of those worlds is Port Elizabeth, Ontario, where a German family lives in fear of their neighbors; they are terrorized in their own homes every Remembrance Day. Interestingly, as Britain lies in shambles and America cozies up with Germany, this Canada’s major foreign backer is, of all places, the Soviet Union. Bock paints a portrait of Port Elizabeth as a dreary, grey place, where families of German heritage are forever painted with a sign bearing the stigma of ‘the enemy.’
This town and its happenings are seen through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy of German extraction. In doing so, Bock avoids the pitfall of many alternate history writers by limiting the information given to the reader in these sections by using the filter of somebody who would only know so much. The end result is a claustrophobic reading experience where motivations have to be guessed and not logically inferred, and large-scale politics are viewed through the lens of what can be done in the here-and-now (and with the naivete of youth, for that matter).
Thematically, this is a book about how politics forces people to view each other as something other than human. The edicts of Berlin or London or Washington or Ottawa ascribe the status of black sheep to people to whom they are theoretically responsible, and people are reviled and murdered for it. The treatment of Germans in Canada is the most obvious, but there is a potent and harrowing parallel happening south of the American border.
As a more ‘literary’ take on our beloved genre, I can’t help but compare this book to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham. We are a strange genre in that so many of our classics were written by dilettantes who never touched it again, and as such the way that these writers approach allohistorical speculation varies significantly from established tropes. In my review of Rodham, I argued that the book leaned on the mainstream literary devices to the point it rendered the alternate history feeling pointless. In this regard, The Good German is what Rodham aspired to be, and failed to be. Bock has written a book that succeeds in synthesizing the best of the typical ‘genre’ conventions with the best of ‘serious literature.’ The reader will profit from his ambition.
The Good German, despite its well-trod allohistorical background, is a book that our community ought to pay attention to. This book is a stellar example of how character and world are inextricably interlinked (as so eloquently expressed by this essay by K. S. Villoso), and how they drive each other forward. This is a bold work, in the context of our genre, and its lessons are ones we should take to heart.