Von Hillem, Wilhelmina Die Geier-wally Kindle Edition.
This isn’t the sort of book I’d usually read in English, but it is well-known in German literature as an example of a Heimatroman and Alpenroman. And it was inexpensive, so I got a copy. The novel, about a young woman in the Ötztal in southern Austria in the 1870s proved to be an intriguing book, in part because of how differently a modern author would probably depict some of the characters. But von Hillem’s landscape descriptions are spectacular, and her writing engrossing enough that I plowed through.
Walburga, the main character, earns the nickname “Vulture-girl” by daring to raid a vulture’s nest and capturing one of the chicks, which she raises. Her father is a proud, hard man, and when Walburga falls in love with a young man her father has sworn to hate, troubles begin. Her father is abusive, and when she refuses to be married to a neighboring farmer, her father beats her, then sends her into exile raising sheep in the mountains.
The mountains, and the vulture, are characters in the same way the people are. The vulture also stands for Wally’s pride and hardness of heart, which will come to stand between her and love. When she is forced to find winter work, having the vulture bars her from gaining employment, and causes great difficulties with relating to other people. All the while she dreams of Joseph, the man her father hates. And then it gets complicated…
The story is pure 19th century romantic fiction, with a melodramatic climax, true love found, pride humbled, and justice done. The character of the Geier-wally would be very familiar to modern readers: the strong woman, as good as a man at many things, better at some other things, and determined to follow her own desires no matter the cost. The author doesn’t dwell on the abuse Walburga suffers, but you know it happened, and that it shapes her to the point it is amazing she can love anyone or anything. Her love interest is far less detailed, which fits the style of the book.
As mentioned above, the story ends as 19th century romances tend to do, with misunderstandings cleared up, justice done, and love and faith conquering all. It was a little over-much Sturm und Drang, and I skimmed through some of it. In fact, the first 3/4 of the book are probably of greater interest for modern readers, because of the descriptions of society and the landscape. No one really bats an eye at Walburga and other women managing farms and doing business, or helping men with heavy work, or with Walburga staying at the shepherd’s hut all summer. This is a mountain novel, and mountain women were expected to work hard, both in real life and by readers. Think Heidi, and how she cares for her grandfather’s household even though she’s “too young” by modern standards.
The novel’s story is based on a true one. A farmer could not find anyone to go up to the summer pastures with his flocks, because of accidents and other odd occurrences. So a young woman agreed to take on the task, and she worked as a shepherd for a number of years and was well-known in the region. I suspect her tale did not end as happily as that of the Geier-wally, based on what I know about the economy of the Tyrol in the 19th century. Parents sent their children to find work as young as age five, and every autumn large groups of children aged eight and older walked as far as Munich to find employment as servants and workers. That’s how bad the economy was and how close-to-the bone subsistence farming was in the Alps.
The novel glosses over that, to an extent. Which again, you’d expect from this genre and when it was written. It is Romantic, with magnificent, harsh, detailed landscapes, powerful emotions that surge through the characters, battles of will, and weather that reflects the characters’ moods and the events of the plot.
The motif of the vulture makes this almost a novella in the German literary sense of the word. Almost. I suspect the author absorbed that from her literary environment. The length of the book, and other elements keep it from being a pure novella.
I suspect a modern author would change the ending and tone down the scene. Instead of the Geier-wally finding love with Joseph, the book would probably end with either 1) her deciding never to marry because men are too fickle, 2) her returning to the mountains and disappearing, or 3) her marrying someone else. (Or her and the other major female character deciding to pair off, if it was really a “cutting-edge” social commentary novel.)
I’m glad I read the book. It really pushed me to regain my German, in part because the dialogue was in Tyrolean dialect and a bit of a challenge to work through, and in part because the descriptions of nature and of the Geier-wally’s experiences were so well done. She’s a complicated, passionate woman, and watching her overcome her terrible upbringing is satisfying, even if you know how it will probably end and you wince from the melodrama.
I’m not certain how well translations handle the book. I read it in the original German. There have also been half a dozen movies and TV specials based on the story.
FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation from the author’s estate or the publisher for this review.