In Stephanie Vanderslice’s debut novel, The Lost Son, events that most would deem unfathomable are one woman’s reality. After emigrating to the United States from Germany with her new husband, Julia Kruse begins a new, what she thinks will be happy, life. After the birth of her first son, Johannes, life for Julia is rather typical. Following the difficult delivery of her second son, Nicholas, however, she begins living a mother’s worst nightmare when the nurse kidnaps the baby and returns to Germany, leaving Julia to wonder for a lifetime about her lost son.
The power of The Lost Son rests in its alternating timeline structure. Each chapter presents a new timeframe, either from Julia’s past or her present in 1945. The chapters covering her past first give readers insight into Julia’s painful childhood. After the death of her mother during childbirth, Julia lives with the consequences. Her older sister, Lena, is unable to forgive Julia for their mother’s death. Her father, a caring and kind man, does his best to raise his daughters with the help of a governess. Eventually, the chapters help unravel more of the past darkness that crowds into Julia’s present: after the sudden death of her father, Julia marries Robert, and the marriage promises a fruitful life, especially as the couple emigrates to America and establishes a thriving business. By balancing the past with the present, the structure makes Julia’s present life in 1945 more impactful for readers. They see an older woman living on her own, questioning her worth as a woman in midlife — a time when society, even now, deems women expendable. Readers see that Julia’s physical and emotional insecurities — insecurities that readers can easily trace to her turbulent childhood and early womanhood — dominate her desire to finally have a happy existence.
Johannes, Julia’s firstborn son, also plays a significant role in the book, since Julia’s story is also partially Johannes’s. Again, the novel’s structure combines with Vanderslice’s poetic prose to emotionally engage readers with Johannes, who, despite his intelligence and strength, is burdened with his father’s abandonment. The most poignant chapters depict Johannes’ experiences in Germany, where the Red Cross locates Nicholas, wounded and in hospital. In these chapters, Johannes’s story folds together with his younger brother’s. As Nicholas, a German, learns the truth about his family and his American citizenship, the family faces a difficult reality: war separates families and divides humanity. These complexities give readers something to ponder, especially given the events unfolding in Eastern Europe. Thus, The Lost Son transforms into a novel that is more than historical fiction — it becomes a novel of human experience, where family ties and compassion seek to overcome the greatest divides.
Through Julia, the book gives us a version of the female immigration experience. When Julia arrives in America, she — as a woman of that era — is fortunate: her husband’s family is well-to-do, and she does not face poverty and other obstacles many immigrants faced during that time. In the chapters covering World War II, Julia faces little discrimination from others, but Julia is well-aware of the stereotypes and the animosity from others toward Germans. She is fortunate enough to keep her job at the bakery where she has worked for years, maintaining her independence, but others aren’t so lucky. Julia becomes a memorable heroine, one whose devotion to achieving the goal of finding her son will stay with readers long after they have left the novel’s pages.
This is a book with a complicated family facing complex questions of identity and community, questions readers can return to again and again. With its depictions of a historical period that for many is long-forgotten and for others is still all too real, The Lost Son becomes an important novel. Despite its historical setting, the issues depicted are contemporary, and its story of compassion and pursuit in the face of adversity is a positive message needed by readers everywhere.
The Lost Son
By Stephanie Vanderslice
Regal House Publishing
Published March 14, 2022