By Robert Hirzer, MD. Servus Books, 2013. ISBN 0-992-1-01603. Paperback, 496 pages. $19.99.
My colleague, Bob Hirzer, is a semi-retired GP living in New Westminster. For the last 7 years he has contributed to global warming by burning the midnight oil. The result of his efforts is the publishing of his debut novel, The Last Plane.
What began as a eulogy to his father morphed into a fictionalized account of his family spanning eight decades and four generations. The plot focuses on the Sternat family as they struggle to survive in the post–First World War depression in Herzdorf, Austria. A medical catastrophe fragments the family, casting a sister and four brothers to the winds of fate. The brothers are conscripted into the Nazi war machine and trained as Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops). Two brothers assigned to the same unit are exposed to identical theatres of operation—Bergen Norway and the Russian front. The parallel between the storyline and the author’s heritage is uncanny.
The author uses a collection of letters between one of the brothers and a childhood sweetheart to provide continuity and mystery. For dessert, the reader is presented with a series of enological vignettes. Foreshadowing, intrigue, and suspense keep the reader on edge until the last page.
On completion the reader is left in a quandary. What is fact and what is fiction? After interviewing the author and barraging him with a plethora of questions, my estimate is that this work is 90% fact and 10% fiction. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
I was impressed with the author’s ability to use time travel as a literary device. The reader is catapulted between graphic scenes at will. The author’s in-depth research provides vivid imagery of combat, obstetrical crises, and intimacy. A significant portion of the novel involves the demise of the German Sixth Army at the siege of Stalingrad—the crucible of war. This leaves the reader with a profound insight of combat from the viewpoint of the other side.
A word of caution—the invoked vivid imagery is not for the faint of heart. Yet, at times the author displays a sense of humor akin to that of John Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany.
The hallmark of an accomplished writer is his or her ability to present intimacy. This work has one such encounter, handled with particular sensitivity and using simple yet profound imagery—very effective. Throughout this novel the author resorts to his experience as a family physician, husband, and parent to bring credibility to the plot. I found this to be very effective, especially his involvement as mentor.
I have a simple life philosophy: time is too short to squander on TV and bad books. This book does not waste time or disappoint—highly recommended.
—John Albrecht, MD
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