Elizabeth B. Splaine is from Barrington, and is fellow member of Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA).
For three quarters of a century, the stream of stories centered on the horrors of World War II has been endless. And that is as it should be. Telling stories is how we won’t forget, ever. Each one is valuable, worthy of being told. Each looks through a different lens, expanding our vision of the depths of depravity those years gave rise to, and, equally importantly, the core of strength, of unselfishness, of sacrifice manifested by those who survived, and those who did not.
Elizabeth B. Splaine’s Swan Song: a Novel is a breathtaking work of fiction based on historical fact. She did her homework, and while the protagonist is the author’s creation, the events and many of the people in the story are true.
Ursula Becker is a rising star in the world of opera in 1930s Germany, a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Hitler’s niece. When Hitler meets Ursula, he becomes obsessed with her, setting into motion a tale of control, family, love, music, and of war. Ursula meets and falls in love with Hitler’s half nephew William Patrick, Willy, whose mother is Irish and who was raised in England.
Ursula spurns Hitler’s advances. She learns that she is a mischling of the second degree, one quarter Jewish. As she sees the Reich’s policies being carried out in her native Berlin, she at first shrugs it off, until the horror begins to affect those she knows and loves.
Summoned to Hitler’s getaway chalet in the country, she is ordered to perform a private concert. Her choice of repertoire enrages Hitler. In a scene at the dinner party prior to the recital, Splaine expertly ratchets the tension to the boiling point, chillingly describing Hitler’s mercurial nature, counterpointed to his volatility and his ability to ingratiate and mesmerize.
Ursula is soon trapped in a spiral of events, losing control of her own destiny. Her plans to escape with Willy to England are thwarted. They are separated and she is sentenced to Terezin, a Jewish ghetto near Prague. Terezin is a de facto concentration camp in which many artists, musicians, actors, and authors were confined.
Music is an essential element of the story, not only in Ursula’s personal life, but in the survival of the prisoners of Terezin. Ursula, in partnership with composers, singers, and accompanist, creates an oasis of hope as they rehearse and eventually perform Verdi’s Requiem at Terezin. It “reminded her how powerful music could be, especially when combined with hope.” She believes to her core that “art is not what we do. It is who we are.”
As a retired opera singer herself and now classical voice teacher, Elizabeth Splaine understands that music is significant, even essential, an understanding which imbues her story with truth and honesty.
Elizabeth Splaine brilliantly portrays Ursula’s anguish over the tension between acceding to her moral center and survival, and her slowly growing maturity from self-centeredness to caring about those around her.
Without hyperbole, Splaine deftly and unwaveringly threads together with a pointed needle the startling parallels between WWII Germany and present day America.
Ursula reflects on the “future denied,” two words that took my breath away, for all those sent from Terezin to their deaths at Auschwitz, of all those who perished in the many concentration camps.
Swan Song rightfully takes its place among the canon of WWII stories. Page after page, my heart was in my throat, a sob about to erupt.
Not to be missed. Highly recommended.