The Last Daughter of Prussia isn’t a book about horses. But it is an excellent work of historical fiction, in which horses—Trakehner horses, to be specific—play an important supporting role, a role that author Marina Gottlieb Sarles uses effectively to enrich the story.
The book follows the Great Trek, the barely discussed westward flight of Prussian civilians from their Russian invaders in the winter of 1944-45. East Prussia was the eastern-most province of Germany, lying directly north of Poland (of which it’s now a part), with a coastline along the Baltic Sea. Because of its location, World War II had caused relatively few ripples in life there, until the Allies turned the tide with the invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
By then, the Russians had regained enough strength to start marching toward Berlin, intent on killing or destroying anything German in revenge. When the Russians broke through East Prussia’s eastern border in October 1944, the Nazi regime had nothing to stop them, no means to protect the region’s farmers and townspeople.
So the Prussians began to flee, along with thousands of gypsies and Jews, who’d been living there in relative security. Sarles’ grandparents were among those Prussian refugees, and they survived, while millions did not, claimed by cold, hunger, drowning and Russian attacks.
Caught up in this turmoil were the Trakehner horses, who’d been bred in East Prussia for centuries. Many carried their breeders on their backs or pulled their owners’ wagons on the trek, and only a few of the 1,200-strong breed survived—27 mares, two stallions and seven foals, according to Sarles.
Sarles carefully researched the Great Trek and the landscape and people of East Prussia to create the two central characters, Manya von Falken, the daughter of wealthy parents who bred Trakehners on their expansive farm, and Joshi Karas, a Romani or gypsy who’s been her close friend since childhood and had earned a medical degree in Sweden. The Nazis despised the Romanis almost as much as the Jews, and Joshi is hauled off to a concentration camp after the Nazis murder his entire clan, just before Manya and others begin the trek.
The story of Manya’s and Joshi’s suffering, apart and then together again on the trek, drives the story forward, serving as a reminder of how horrible people can be to each other in wartime—and how brave and how kind they can be, too.
Bottom Line: Sarles’ accounts of her characters’ suffering and strength isn’t preachy, but it is evocative and gut-wrenching. It’s a gripping book that you won’t want to end, in which she warmly illustrates the courage of these horses and their owners’ attachment to them.
Best Suited For: Anyone who likes a good book, but particularly fans of historical fiction. And if you like romances, you may like this book.
You’ll Be Disappointed If: You expect the last daughter of Prussia to be a horse. She isn’t, although she does ride her Trakehner stallion.
John Strassburger, Performance Editor