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Book Review by Robin Widmar

“The Glassblower”

ìThe Glassblower,î by title alone, initially held little appeal to me. However, within the first few chapters, I began to look forward to reading it every evening. Set in the late 19th century in the small town of Lauscha, Germany ó a town whose sole industry is glasswork ó ìThe Glassblowerî by Petra Durst-Benning artfully tells the tale of three young womenís struggles to survive, following the death of their father.The art of glassblowing is what connects the characters in this book and the residents of Lauscha, but was a job held only by men. The women of the town supported these efforts in minor roles, such as packing and decorating the wares, but it was unheard of for a woman to consider learning the trade.Johanna, Ruth and Marie are three sisters forced to fend for themselves when their father, Joost Steinmann, dies in the beginning of the book. Joost, a widower, was extremely protective of his daughters, and had not allowed them to even entertain the thought of being courted by the men in their community. Following his death, the sisters realize that while their father had taught them to be strong and independent, they would struggle to support themselves in a male dominated society.Each of the Steinmann girls, as they were known in Lauscha, are committed to each other; and only through their combined efforts are they able to survive during difficult times. While their personalities are different and lead them down distinctly different paths, their strength and independence are traits shared by all three. A phrase often repeated throughout the book is ìthe Steinmann girls ruled the roost in the Steinmann house.î They were not willing to relinquish their independence or pride to survive.The oldest sister, Johanna, is the most practical of the three sisters. After their fatherís death, she and her sisters find themselves in the employ of another glassworker in town, Wilhelm Heimer. Johannaís work there is short-lived because she refuses to keep her opinions to herself. After a ìdreadful row with Mr. Heimer,î she returns to the city of Sonneberg to work for Friedhelm Strobel, the glasswork wholesaler through whom all of Lauscha makes their money. Johanna is placed in a world where her intelligence is revered, not questioned; and she quickly outgrows her small town girl way of life. Johanna is successful in the role of Strobelís assistant, until he forces himself upon her and savagely attacks her. She returns to Lauscha battered and humiliated.Ruth is the bold and adventurous middle child ó always wanting a better life. She speaks often of her desire to have ìthe pretty thingsî and to find a man to provide her with these comforts. Ruth finds this in Heimerís oldest son, Thomas. They marry shortly after she learns she is pregnant, but her dream of ìa better life with the son of the wealthiest man in townî is soon darkened by Thomasí drinking and abusive behavior. His abuse of her begins when their child is born, who, to the dismay of the Heimer family, is a baby girl, named Wanda.The youngest of the three is Marie, their fatherís ìprincess.î Impractical and passionate, Marie discovers her artistic talent in working for the Heimers. After months of secretly making Christmas ornaments using her fatherís equipment, she then leads the family to creating their own business of making and selling beautifully decorated glassware, which stands in stark contrast to the ìgimcrackî quality of the other glassblowers. The introduction of a female glassblower creates considerable disruption in the town, which thrives on maintaining centuries old traditions.As Marie continues to excel in the art of glassblowing and with Johanna serving as the business manager, the Steinmann girls are able to escape their dependencies on the Heimers, also allowing Ruth to leave her abusive marriage. Ruth takes a greater role in supporting the family by traveling to Sonneberg to entreat Mr. Woolworth, of the well-known Woolworthís company, to purchase their wares. It is through this venture that Ruth eventually meets Steven Miles, Woolworthís assistant. Miles falls in love with Ruth and takes her and her infant daughter to America, giving her the life of luxury that she had always dreamed about.A significant event is the arrival of the Woolworthís company in Sonneberg as a buyer of glassware. The Woolworthís connection is important as it sets the stage for Johanna to enact her revenge upon Friedhelm Strobel and to establish herself as a savvy businesswoman.Woolworthís also becomes the primary source of income for the family, eagerly placing numerous orders for Marieís artistic creations.The small town setting created a sense of intimacy and support among the characters but also allowed for conflict and dissension. The characters were well-developed, to include repeated intimations to Friedhelm Strobelís involvement in some exclusive fetish group in a town known only as ìB.î His role as the villain is deepened when he gives Johanna the Memoirs of Marquis de Sade as a Christmas gift.Although the character of Joost Steinmann dies in the first few pages, the reader gets a strong sense of his personality and how much he loved his daughters. The Steinmannís neighbor, Peter Maienbaum, provides consistent support for the girls as well as a relentless; yet, respectful, pursuit of Johannaís affection.While the story is fictional, there are historic accuracies throughout. The first glass Christmas ornaments were created in the German town of Lauscha, and the town did eventually sell the majority of their wares to Woolworthís. ìThe Glassblowerî was originally written in German and translated nearly 10 years after its first printing.I enjoyed the book, enough to read it a second time years later. It is a trilogy, and the second and third books, ìAmerican Ladyî and ìParadise of Glass,î were equally worth the time.

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