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SONS AND BROTHERS by Kim Hays: Book Review

Verdingkinder is a word that was unknown to me, as I suspect it is to most readers.  It’s Swiss-German, meaning “contract children” or “indentured child laborers,” and it refers to a practice in Switzerland in which children were removed from their homes and basically sold to people needing an extra pair of hands, either on farms or in factories or doing domestic chores.   

Sometimes the children were orphans, but at other times they were sold because their families could no longer care for them, either emotionally or monetarily.

A study estimated that in 1930 there were some 35,000 verdingkinder in the country, although some estimates were as high as twice that number.  There were auctions at which farmers bid for the children’s services, scarily similar to the slave auctions in the United States before the Civil War.  Many of these children suffered brutal working conditions, injuries, and beatings, all of it ignored by the authorities.

In Sons and Brothers, Kim Hays brings the stories of some of these children to life, with the repercussions that are still occurring nearly a century after the practice was outlawed.

Detective Giuliana Linder and Investigator Renzo Donatelli are on the Bern police force, and they are called to investigate a call about a corpse found floating in the Aare River.  The man is identified almost immediately as Johann Karl Gurtner, a retired cardiologist.  More than a simple drowning, it’s obvious that the victim had been in a vicious fight.  Strangely, his wallet was found with a great deal of money inside, but his watch was missing.

Gurtner had two adult sons from his first marriage and a teenage son from his second and current one.  He was a strict father, demanding perfection and obedience from them, but no one can come up with a reason that he was murdered.  His middle son Markus has never lived up to his father’s high expectations for him, but now, after some missteps, including a prison term, Markus has found a career as a successful photographer.

When Giuliana goes to Markus’ apartment to interview him, she’s stunned to see a photograph she recognizes as part of a city-sponsored exhibit on verdingkinder.  She realizes that he is the artist who created the mesmerizing photos of the now-elderly people who had been contract laborers as children.  Although she still views Markus as a suspect in his father’s death, she’s compelled to tell him that in her opinion the photographs are “brilliant.”

Can there be a connection between the verdingkinder and Gurtner’s death?  Markus tells Giuliana that his father spoke very little about his childhood and advises her to contact Charlotte, Johann’s older sister, and she discovers that Johann’s relationship with his own father was a difficult one as was his with Markus.  The past repeating itself, Giuliana thinks, but just how this connects to the verdingkinder and Johann’s death is still to be discovered.

Sons and Brothers is a compelling novel about a crime that goes back decades, giving readers a look into an unsavory part of Switzerland’s past.  Linder and Donatelli are totally believable characters, and the story, unfortunately, is an all-too-true one.

You can read more about Kim Hays at this site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.




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