Imagine, if you will, that you find yourself transported from 2009 to Vienna in 1897. Don’t ask how it’s possible. Just assume you are there. You go to the train station and take a train outside the city a couple of hours, and you get off in a small town named Lambach. It’s early afternoon on a weekday, and you wait in front of a nondescript house in a quaint neighborhood for a boy to come walking home from school. Here he comes. A skinny boy, darkish hair, fair complexion, a bit shy, with a book bag on his back. You let the boy pass. He greets you “Guten Tag” and you greet back. You know the boy’s name: Adolf Hitler.
You know that the boy would eventually grow up, enter politics, and through a series of maneuverings and sheer luck take control of Germany and bring about the death of upward of 10 million people, Jews in concentration camps, civilians on both sides killed, soldiers on both sides killed by the millions. Would you strangle the little boy right there on the sidewalk and save those 10 million lives and change history?
That’s the question Wheeler Burden had to ask himself in this magnificent story of time travel and history.
Somehow Wheeler and his father Dilly Burden end up transplanted in time, for reasons they themselves cannot understand, to Vienna in 1897. At that time, Vienna was at its pinnacle. It was a leading city in the arts, science, philosophy, music, writing and politics. Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria was still in power, and the Hapsburg empire was still thriving. Nobody but a few intellectuals realized that the empire would collapse within decades and practically disappear. Vienna, at that time, was very much the center of Europe.
The Burden family, starting with the matriarch, Wheeler’s grandmother and her husband Frank, is a prominent Boston society family that somehow descends on Vienna to make history. The plot is so intervowen and so full of surprises, that it’s difficult to describe. Let me just say that besides Adolf Hitler, there are other well known characters that participate in the story, including Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Richard Wagner (in reference only) and many more minor characters.
Wheeler is an American hero, a star student in secondary school, a Harvard graduate, a super baseball player, a rock star, a writer, a philosopher, a liar and impostor, and a time traveler. His father Dilly is just as illustrious. The entire Burden family is unreal. You wonder how the 20th century could have happened without them. But it’s a novel, so you accept it.
When you read a book you learn a lot about its author. To enjoy this book, you have to be interested in European history at the turn of the previous century. Edwards certainly know his history. I imagine he went to Harvard, since the university is too omnipresent in this story. He loves Vienna, its language and culture. He is definitely a baseball player. He knows a lot about psychoanalysis. And he is probably a snob. He worked on this book for over 30 years and it’s his debut novel. He does a good job, and there will be other books, if he can do another one before 30 more years go by.