The freezing rains of late November and the icy rush of the Aare as it loops around the city of Bern set the scene for Sons and Brothers, the second Polizei Bern novel, which is due out on April 18, 2023, and can already be pre-ordered: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Sons-Brothers/Kim-Hays/9781645060581
In this book Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli are confronted with the death of a local doctor, Johann Karl Gurtner. Heart surgeon, charitable volunteer, and Bernese patrician, Gurtner was the picture of an upright citizen, yet someone punched him in the face and left him to drown in the Aare. As Giuliana and Renzo investigate, slowly going deeper into Gurtner’s past, the man’s estranged son Markus becomes the prime suspect.
Although much of Sons and Brothers unfolds in the city of Bern, part of this book, like the first, is set in the Bernese countryside. In Pesticide, that setting is Haldiz, a village in the Three Lakes region known for its vegetables. Heidmatt, where part of Sons and Brothers takes place, is a village on the Emme river. This is the river that created the Emmental, a region famous for the hole-filled cheese that Americans call Swiss cheese.
Neither Haldiz nor Heidmatt is a real place, although both are based on villages I’ve been to many times. What is completely factual, however, is the practice described in Sons and Brothers of contracting children out to strangers as farm workers. For over 150 years, well into the 1960s, local officials who judged parents—especially single mothers—unfit or immoral could take their children away permanently and place them in institutions or, more often, with families as unpaid labor. Children as young as seven or eight were put to work on farms all over the country, but particularly in Bern. Most suffered neglect and cruelty, and some, physical and sexual abuse. In German, these children are called Verdingkinder. Historians estimate that during the worst years of forced child labor (1820-1960), hundreds of thousands of them were affected.
I first learned about this practice of contracting children out as workers from an exhibition I saw in 2009. There I learned that into the twentieth century, children were sometimes offered to bidders at auctions in the marketplace; they were given to the person willing to accept the least money for their room and board. For me, the most powerful part of the exhibition were the audio excerpts from interviews with adults who had been placed out as children. Often for the first times in their lives, these old people described the extreme hardship of their childhoods and the profound feelings of loneliness they experienced as contract children. This show traveled all over Switzerland for nine years and broke down a barrier of silence that had kept this terrible government policy from being reexamined.
The brand-new cover of Sons and Brothers, like the cover of Pesticide, is designed by Jennifer Do, and I’m delighted with it. The river represents both the Emme and the Aare, two rivers that run through the canton of Bern and through this second book featuring Giuliana and Renzo.
By the way, do any of you know stories about children being contracted out to work on farms in the US or another country besides Switzerland?