The Ragged Edge of Night
Nominated for the 2018 National Book Award
In consideration for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize
Publication date: October 1, 2018
High-resolution images available upon request.
Advance Praise for The Ragged Edge of Night
"Harrowing and yet life-affirming, told in the richest, most eloquent prose, The Ragged Edge of Night is one of the World War II novels that will stand out and be remembered."
- Rhys Bowen, New York Times bestselling author of The Tuscan Child
"Emotionally charged and beautifully written... Olivia Hawker shows that life can move forward and unexpected love can triumph, even when it strikes the most unlikely people during brutal years of conflict. This is an unusual story based on a true one, making it all the more fascinating and satisfying."
- Ann Howard Creel, bestselling author of The Whiskey Sea
"When the world is at war, can one person make a difference? This moving historical novel immerses readers in World War II-era Germany, where even small acts of resistance have terrible consequences... Eye-opening and ultimately inspiring."
- Elizabeth Blackwell, author of On a Cold Dark Sea
"This story of a simple man making the difficult choice to fight for his deepest values reminds us of the best in humanity."
- Laila Ibrahim, bestselling author of Yellow Crocus
About the Novel
For fans of All the Light We Cannot See, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, and The Nightingale comes an emotionally gripping, beautifully written historical novel about extraordinary hope, redemption, and one man’s search for light during the darkest times of World War II.
Germany, 1942. Franciscan friar Anton Starzmann is stripped of his place in the world when his school is seized by the Nazis. He relocates to a small German hamlet to wed Elisabeth Herter, a widow who seeks a marriage—in name only—to a man who can help raise her three children. Anton seeks something too—atonement for failing to protect his young students from the wrath of the Nazis. But neither he nor Elisabeth expects their lives to be shaken once again by the inescapable rumble of war.
As Anton struggles to adapt to the roles of husband and father, he learns of the Red Orchestra, an underground network of resisters plotting to assassinate Hitler. Despite Elisabeth’s reservations, Anton joins this army of shadows. But when the SS discovers his schemes, Anton will embark on a final act of defiance that may cost him his life—even if it means saying goodbye to the family he has come to love more than he ever believed possible.
This literary historical novel will appeal to adult audiences. With its complex characters and sometimes-ambiguous themes, The Ragged Edge of Night is an excellent book club selection.
About the Author
Through unexpected characters and vivid prose, Olivia Hawker explores the varied landscape of the human spirit. Olivia’s interest in genealogy often informs her writing. Her first two novels from Lake Union Publishing, The Ragged Edge of Night and One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow (2019), are based on true stories found within the author’s family tree.
She lives in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, where she homesteads at Longlight, a one-acre microfarm dedicated to sustainable permaculture practices.
Olivia Hawker is available for bookstore readings, book club discussions (in person or via Skype), conferences, radio programs, podcasts, and more. Please contact the author at to schedule an appearance.
Behind the Book
A Novel for an Era of Resistance
Like many Americans, I was shocked by the results of our last national election and horrified by the aftermath: the emergence into the public eye of white supremacists and other destructive nationalists. I have always reacted to personal distress by writing, and the growing presence of white nationalists on American soil certainly distressed me enough that I knew I had to write about the subject.
I wanted to spread a message of hope, a reminder of the potency of resistance and the power all ordinary citizens have to change their country and their world for the better. I found the perfect vehicle for this message in my family's own history.
My husband's grandfather, Anton Starzmann, lost the life he had known and cherished when the Nazis closed the Catholic-controlled school for developmentally delayed children where had lived and taught for many years as a Franciscan friar. Cast suddenly back into a layman's life and burdened by the guilt of being unable to protect his students from the Nazis, Anton threw himself into years of resistance. Though his acts of
resistance started as small, secretive things,
Anton grew bolder - or perhaps more desperate - as the war accelerated toward its terrible climax. All too soon, his fight against Hitler's regime placed his life and the safety of his new family in grave danger. Yet Anton fought on, disrupting the Nazis' efforts to inculcate children into Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls, interfering with German arms production, and defying the gauleiter - the "eyes and ears" - of his tiny Bavarian village. Anton even became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, which put him and his family at the greatest risk of all, and nearly brought the wrath of the S. S. down upon the entire hamlet.
If every cloud has a silver lining, then I am grateful for one small blessing that has come out of our nation's present turmoil. I was inspired to research and write this novel, with the hope that I can spread Anton Starzmann's message of love over hate - and inspire readers to resist tyranny, knowing that the actions of one individual can make a difference.
A Discussion with Olivia Hawker: Sample Interview
The Ragged Edge of Night is based on a true story. Who was Anton Starzmann, the man at the center of your novel?
He started his adult life as a Franciscan friar, a calling to which he was thoroughly dedicated. He taught at St. Josefsheim, a residential school for developmentally delayed children and young adults, as well as children with other disabilities such as blindness or deafness. Anton taught a variety of subjects, but he was most enthusiastic about music, and took great pride in helping children communicate through that particular art.
Later in his life, he became a staunch resister of the Nazi regime, even though he was just one ordinary man living (by that time) in a small, insignificant town in rural Bavaria.
Most importantly to me, though, Anton was my husband's grandfather, which makes this novel a family story. As you can imagine, that makes the book very special to me.
How did he become involved in the resistance against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime?
I'm afraid that's a sad story. Toward the latter years of Nazi power, Action T4 caught up with Anton's school. This was the policy whereby the Nazis seized people with all kinds of physical or mental disabilities, deeming them "life unfit for life," and put them to death. Anton's students were "redistributed" - which meant, of course, that they were sent to other facilities to be executed, and some of those facilities included the horrific concentration camps so many people think of when they picture Germany during World War II.
Anton Starzmann as a young Franciscan friar, circa 1935.
The last Catholic orders, charities, and even newspapers were shut down around the same time, too, which meant Anton suddenly found himself thrown into a life that bore no resemblance to the one he had lived for so many years. He was bereft of everything he had known and loved. I think the shock of witnessing such brutality enacted against the children he had loved, and the disorientation of losing his religious grounding at the same time, must have inspired him to fight back against the Nazis.
Shortly after the seizure of his school and students, Anton wed Elisabeth Herter, a widow seeking a marriage to a good Catholic man who could help raise her three young children. They were virtual strangers when they married.
What can you tell us about Anton's marriage?
Shortly after the closure of his school, Anton responded to a "want ad" in one of the last remaining Catholic newspapers, before it was shut down for good. The ad was from a woman named Elisabeth Herter, whose husband had recently died, leaving her alone in an isolated rural town to care for her three young children. Elisabeth hoped to find a good Catholic man who could help support her children, and she found that in Anton.
No one in our family is quite sure what made Anton agree to marry Elisabeth, who was a perfect stranger to him at the time. I assume that he felt a call to protect those three needy children - and perhaps felt that by stepping in as father to these kids, he might partially atone for his failure to protect his students from the Nazis.
Whatever the reason, Anton and Elisabeth were soon married, and Anton went from friar to husband and father almost in the blink of an eye.
Was his marriage to Elisabeth a happy one, or was it merely a convenient arrangement?
Anton and Elisabeth certainly had a very warm and loving marriage later in their lives. They were entirely dedicated to each other until the end of their lives. But you can imagine how hard it must have been at first, trying to get to know a brand-new spouse while the turmoil and destruction of war is going on all around you. I think it's a testament to their devotion to family, that they both made it work through some exceptionally dark hours - and through Anton's dangerous involvement with the Resistance.
Tell us about Anton's acts of resistance.
I think his first act of resistance, really, was faking a back injury to get out of required military service. That can be frowned upon as an act of cowardice, but I think you have to understand where Anton was coming from. After the closure of Catholic orders, he was thrust into the world of ordinary German citizens, but he certainly had no intention of supporting the regime that had destroyed his life and murdered the children he had loved. Yet you couldn't simply be a conscientious objector in 1940s Germany; it wasn't an option. So he did what he had to do, first of all, to keep himself from killing in the name of the Nazi regime.
But his later acts were far more fascinating. It was interesting, going through his notes and all the pictures and things he had kept from those years, because I could see his resistance escalating. One of the things my mother-in-law gave me - which I absolutely treasure - is Anton's workbook. He was required to record his hours of service in this little official document, which is a bit like a passport. I love the workbook because it has the eagle insignia of the Third Reich, but where the swastika should be, inside the wreath that the eagle holds in its talons, there's nothing. Anton scratched the swastika off the cover of his workbook. That was fairly risky behavior, as somebody important might have noticed that he had defaced the insignia of the Third Reich.
His acts certainly didn't stop there. He cooked up an elaborate scheme to keep the village boys out of Hitler Youth - which, by then, wasn't merely a propaganda and brainwashing organization; Hitler Youth boys were being used as canon fodder on the
Anton's defaced workbook, with swastika scratched away.
Eastern front, sent off to die en masse with no military training and no real hope for survival. Anton's plan was strange, but it worked - and it was honestly pretty charming. He started a marching band, on the premise that Hitler loved music, so their tiny town could honor the Führer much better with music than by simple participation in Hitler Youth - which, after all, was what every town was doing. By spinning the band as something unique, something that might make their insignificant village stand out and earn some of Hitler's esteem, he succeeded in convincing even his loyalist neighbors that it was worth doing. In that way, he saved the lives of dozens of boys in his village.
He was also involved in some manner with a plot to assassinate Hitler. Even after the war, Anton seldom spoke about that, and gave no details of his involvement to his children. There were still Nazis living in Germany long after the war - there still are, sadly, and in other countries, too, as we know all too well. Anton was too clever to let slip any details that might bring violence down on him or his loved ones. So although none of my family members could tell me exactly how Anton was involved with an assassination plot, they know he played some part. I invented a plausible role he might have played in The Ragged Edge of Night. I wouldn't be surprised to learn someday that his real participation wasn't far off the mark from the way I portrayed it in the book.
There was one other crucial way Anton resisted the Nazis. I won't go into it here, or it would spoil the book for readers. But it was an act so daring and of such great importance to his tiny town that he is still remembered for that act to this day, and still celebrated for his bravery, even twenty years after his death.
How much did the current global political climate influence the writing of this novel?
Oh, very much. I had known Anton's story since I'd first started dating my husband, back in 2010. And although I thought it would make a good book someday, I never felt called to write it until shortly after the election. My publisher had been trying to encourage me to explore the World War II setting for some time, but I was reluctant. World War II just wasn't calling to me.
But I remember the exact moment when I suddenly felt called to write about WWII. It was November 22, 2016, the day after neo-Nazi Richard Spencer held a rally in Washington D.C., where he had the crowd throwing up the Nazi salute, chanting slogans of the Third Reich, and shouting "Hail Trump." I remember this slow chill coming over me, from head to foot, and I couldn't get the thought of Anton Starzmann out of my head. We've always just referred to Anton as Opa in our family, so I thought, "This is exactly what Opa saw when he was a younger man. He watched this same thing happen in his country after a similarly shocking and confounding election. I don't want to see this end up in the same place it ended up for Opa and Germany." I emailed my editor at Lake Union Publishing that same day and said, "Okay, I'm ready to write that WWII novel now."
What message do you hope readers will take away from The Ragged Edge of Night?
First and foremost, I hope readers will reflect on how Germany got to its nadir. I want readers to look around them at the political state of their own country, wherever that may be, and ask themselves whether it's really so impossible for such disaster and tragedy to happen to them.
But most of all, I want readers to understand that one person committing small acts of resistance can make a real difference during times of darkness. It's not just a comforting cliche. Anton Starzmann made a big difference in his community, because he knew right from wrong and he understood the importance of defending good in the face of great evil. We can all do the same, no matter who we are, no matter what evils we may face.
Ultimately, I hope Anton's story leaves readers feeling inspired and encouraged to keep on fighting until the darkness gives way again to light.
Excerpt from The Ragged Edge of Night
Once the boys have gone, clattering down the staircase—at least the boarding room has a private stair—Anton stands in the middle of his new home, hands on hips, head ducked to avoid the sharp, treacherous slope of the ceiling. Below, he can hear Franke going about his business in the furniture shop, thumping and scraping, cursing at a child or a dog.
He checks his pocket watch, the one his father gave him when, at age eighteen, he ceased to be Josef Anton Starzmann. He donned the gray robe of his order and became Bruder Nazarius instead. Never had he imagined that he would take up his old name again. Never could he have foreseen this—the Catholic orders disbanded by a fanatical government. The complacent ones went wherever the NS ordered them: nuns and monks, Fathers and friars, forced back into the lay world, the dull world beyond their cloisters. Those who did not comply met a different fate.
Often he has asked himself: Was it cowardice, to abandon BruderNazarius so easily, to become Anton again? Should I have fought and died for my faith?
For many months, he believed he was a coward, until he heard the voice of God calling. After so many months of black silence, the thunder of certainty came again. He understood that the Lord had preserved him for a new work and was giving him a chance at redemption. God woke him from a long slumber, raised him up like Lazarus. It was not his lot to fight and die—not yet. There is still work to do, in God’s name.
The afternoon light flashes on the watch face, running a golden circle around its rim. Time is short. He returns the watch to his pocket, where it settles among the beads of his rosary. With a brisk energy, he sets about making himself presentable.
He opens one trunk, the smallest. Even though he knows what he will find beneath its lid—he is braced for the sight—still the curves of brass strike him with a jolt of pain. Like the other three, this trunk is filled with the musical instruments he has kept for seven months. They are his relics, the last reminders of what was lost. Like bones in an ossuary they lie, silent yet voluble in memory. Their bells hold the echoes of remembered lives, and in the reflections bent and distorted around their smooth curves, he can see the expressionless faces of his children.
A bundle of clothing lies tucked in one corner of the trunk, pushed down deep, below the circle of a French horn. He extracts it; the bundle is tied with a cheerful blue ribbon. That’s the work of his sister, Anita, who had lived as Sister Bernadette until the Führer tore up his own Reichskonkordat and spat in the eye of the Holy See. After their respective orders were destroyed, Anton and Anita both stumbled back to their mother’s house on the edge of Stuttgart, stunned and bereft, neither knowing what to do next. When he’d met Anita at the station, she had stepped off the train in a green dress, sober in color yet fashionably cut, and her shoes had been of patent leather with smart, clicking heels. Her hair was pinned and rolled just like the girl’s, the one back on that last train, who had kissed her fingers to Anton. He hadn’t seen Anita’s hair since she had donned her habit at age sixteen. It was no longer the golden yellow he remembered from childhood, bright as falling water. It had darkened to soft, pale brown, like the velvet of a mouse’s pelt, and there were strands of white caught up in her curls, catching the light and glittering. They were both getting older now, but Anita was still as lovely as she’d ever been. He had thought, How pretty my sister is in laywoman’s clothes. Shame had struck him, cold and hard, immediately after. What kind of man finds a nun agreeable when she has been stripped of her sisterhood?
Anita had faced up to their new reality with her usual pluck and game. “I was a bride of Christ,” she said that day, laughing ruefully and taking her little brother’s arm, “but I suppose He has annulled our union.”
“You shouldn’t joke that way,” Nazarius said—Anton said.
“Don’t worry.” She winked at him, spirited, unsisterly. He could see it still, could feel his own hesitant amusement. He remembered the way she had tilted her head toward him, her strangely uncovered head with its ash-colored curls. “Lord Christ and I, we’ll make it up, as soon as all this mess with the Führer is sorted.”
Anton unties the blue ribbon. The sober cloth of his friar’s habit unrolls across his bed. Anita has ironed and folded his best suit, wrapped it in the habit, but he sets the suit aside and runs his hands over the coarse gray wool. The knotted cord that was his belt is there, too, coiled neatly upon itself, a sleeping serpent dreaming of lost Eden. He can all but feel the cord’s weight swinging from his waist. The habit still smells of the school, St. Josefsheim, Kirchenstraße. Wood polish and chalk dust, apples from the orchard, the pipe Brother Nazarius smoked each evening when the children were tucked in their beds. He can smell sweet myrrh from a swinging censer and the sweeter hands of the little ones, sticky from the candy he brought from town twice a week if they were good. They were always good.
Perhaps he’d been too naïve then, a fresh young friar brimming over with earnest desire to heal the world and the unshaken belief that he could do it, too. From his hands would the mercy of Christ extend and pour out into the world like blood from His sacred wounds. And then, this unexpected resurrection: Anton pulled up from the very grave into which they had thrown Bruder Nazarius. This is not the life he pictured when he first donned his habit. But this is not the sort of life anyone dreams of. Even Hitler, he thinks, must be surprised that he ever got so far—that it has all been so simple to take, to destroy. In his moments of despair—and there are many—Anton wonders whether God Himself ever dreamed it could come to this.
He unfolds the suit. Anita, bless her, pressed it perfectly, and scented it with lavender and cedar to keep the moths away. He closes the blue curtain, leaving the note pinned in place. A trace of yellow light filters around the curtain’s edge. He dresses carefully by that dim glow, rolls the old suit in the friar’s habit, and tucks the bundle away among the silent horns. Clumsy hands struggle to recall the necktie knots his father taught him when he was a boy. It has been almost a year since the order was disbanded; that should be enough time for a man to learn his knots again. He frowns into the little round mirror on the wall, talking himself through the motions. Cross over and tuck behind, pinch the top as you pull down. When he has combed his hair and adjusted the angle of his glasses on the bridge of his long, thin nose, he is surprised to see Brother Nazarius looking back at him, despite the suit and tie. Perhaps the old identity is not as dead as he first thought. Did not Saint Francis say, The world is my cloister, my body is my cell, and my soul is the hermit within?
There is work to be done here, in this small village of Unterboihingen—good work and true. After many dark months of silence, of distance, the Lord has spoken. He has called the friar who is no longer a friar; He has awakened Anton to his appointed task. Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in His holy habitation.