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Hitler's Nieceby Ron HansenHarperCollins. 310p $25

Brave novelist, Ron Hansen. In Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) he entered the mind of a contemplative nun with bleeding stigmata. In Atticus (1996) he looked into the paternal love of a 67-year-old Colorado cattleman pursuing his estranged son in Mexico. Now in Hitler’s Niece he takes on the young Geli Raubal and her petulant Uncle Adolf.

In Hitler’s Niece Hansen, an award-winning novelist and professor at Santa Clara University, weaves fiction with history as he tells of Hitler and Geli from 1908 to 1931. In 19 dated chapters"The Beer Hall Putsch, 1923," "München, 1925," "Picnic, 1928"he limns a quotidian Hitler and an irreverent Geli who, against a background of public adulation and growing power, do a private dance of fascination, manipulation, sex and tragedy. The events are Hitler’sPutsch in Munich, prison in the Landsberg Fortress, attacks on Jews, speechifying and organizing for the Nazi causebut the novel belongs to Geli, "the only woman Hitler had ever loved or wanted to marry." By 1931 she is dead at the age of 23.

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It all begins with the baptism of Angelika Maria Raubal in June 1908, daughter of Leo and Angela (Hitler’s half-sister), in Linz, Austria. The anticlerical Uncle Adi avoids the ceremony, but at the party afterward looks "skeletal and pale in a high starched collar and red silk bow tie...his wide, thin mustache so faint it seemed pencilled on, his hair chestnut brown...and as short as a five-day beard." "An Austrian charmer" of 19, he deems himself a thinker and artist. As fame and power grow, he becomes "our shy young Messiah," full of self-pity, begging affection yet fearing women, kinky in sex, speaking in word-torrents, dependent on his niece for companionship and pleasure. Since it is 1908-31, the Nazis are younger than one expects: Hansen reimagines Hitler, Goebbels, Göring and Eva Braun in their earlier years. And young and lovely Geli is bored with medical studies, unsuccessful as a singer, seductive yet hesitant with Hitler, a woman who enjoys her comforts and cannot leave her patron. At once trapped and flattered, she still refuses to be a Nazi and keeps a wry freedom: in her nightgown in Hitler’s bedroom, with her uncle on his knees before her and family members nearby, she coos, "We can’t have you kneeling here like this. The ladies." This insouciant freedom is her most striking trait and, for me, the novel’s major appeal.

Other felicities grace Hitler’s Niece. Original plotting, so masterful in Atticus, is impossible here, but Geli’s wit brings surprises; Hansen must have chuckled in writing her lines. And his prose is typically chiseled into flinty words and vivid details: Hitler’s mustache is "gull-winged," the Raubals’ poverty "as obvious as the canning jars they used for glassware." To a girlfriend, Geli mocks Hitler’s "foolish little mustache by holding a finger beneath her nose" while she scans his bookshelf: war memoirs, histories, myths, erotic art, Spengler’s Decline of the West, Wagner’s My Life, American Westerns, The Protocols of the Elders of Sion. An irritated Hitler "shoved his forelock left with his right hand." Storm troopers smash men into "an affluence of blood" and "a bleeding heap on the tracks, trying to find a tooth." Goebbels’ head resembles "a skull that was cadaverously there just beneath his face."

Hansen’s desire for detail, though, weighs down the book’s history: ever honest to context and keen for specifics, he does overinform about dates, addresses, families, friendships, Nazi events, even a summary of The Protocols of the Elders of Sion. A random example: "Doktor Goebbels organized six thousand meetings and torchlight parades throughout Germany for the 1930 campaign. Millions of books about the party were sold or given away. And in the last six weeks before the September election Adolf Hitler gave over twenty major speeches, often in freshly raised circus tents holding as many as ten thousand. No country on the Continent had ever before undergone such furious miseducation, and the fruit of the propaganda was in the polls, where thirty-five million votedup four million from the 1928 electionand the National Socialists won one hundred seven seats in the Reichstag, a gain of ninety-five." The detail and the research are stunning, but the amassing slows the novel and diverts attention from both Hitler and niece.

Hansen’s religious imaginationan interesting talentmakes religion a normal part of human life. A monsignor attends Geli’s baptism party (getting "beschwipst with beer"), a jailer compares Hitler to St. Paul in chains ("if the jail fell down, you would still find Hitler obediently waiting in his cell"), and while buying lozenges in the Munich railway station Geli notices a Sunday Mass group of "thirty reverent hikers in Tyrolean costume...at a folding table turned into an altar." She also has two fictional encounters with Rupert Mayer, S.J., staunch opponent of the Nazis. In the first he calls Hitler "a dangerous man"; in the second, not long before her death, he hears her confession. The scene is quietly touching.

Though weighty in historical data, Hitler’s Niece is highly original in conception, the brave novel of a brave novelist. Even Geli is brave in her wit. The novel well merits a reader’s favor.

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