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Literary Friday: Forty Autumns

Friday, September 1, 2017

Happy Literary Friday, My Lovelies! 

This week I read an incredible memoir: Forty Autumns by Nina Willner.   

About Forty Autumns

• Paperback: 416 pages

• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition (August 15, 2017)

In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.
Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.

In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk. A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family. Forty Autumns is illustrated with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs.


Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Photo by Julia Forsman

About Nina Willner

Nina Willner is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served in Berlin during the Cold War. Following a career in intelligence, Nina worked in Moscow, Minsk, and Prague promoting human rights, children’s causes, and the rule of law for the U.S. government, nonprofit organizations, and a variety of charities. She currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey. Forty Autumns is her first book. Find out more about Nina at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

My Review:

First of all, I must disagree with the above book blurb.  It says: "five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control."  Sure, the circumstances were beyond their control, and I can't imagine what it must have been like for Hanna who was separated from her family for forty years. But the women's lives and characters in Willner's book are far from "ordinary."

Oma was a loving mother, the glue that held her family together.  She was nurturing, and she taught her family that their familial unit was a wall, a refuge from the horrors they endured at the end of the World War II as the Soviets imposed their evil communist doctrine on East Germany.

Hanna, Oma and Opa's oldest daughter, was brave and constant.  She wanted to live freely because she believed in the values her parents taught her.  Hanna's daring escape to West Germany was mesmerizing to read, and I cheered out loud for her when she visited Heidelberg Castle soon after defecting to the west.  Hanna and her siblings had built a model of the castle with Opa, and the fact that she makes it to the medieval university city and the castle is symbolic of her determination not to be subjected to a totalitarian regime.

Heidelberg Castle

Heidi was born after Hanna's defection.  When she was five years old, she and Oma were granted permission to visit Hanna in Heidelberg.  This trip molded Heidi into the person she would become: She idolized Hanna, and wanted to be like her.  Although she never defected to the West, she held her ground and never joined the ranks of the communist party.

Nina, the book's author, is a badass.  As a United States Army intelligence officer, she became the first female team chief of the Soviet Sector Flag Tours in Berlin, deep within East Germany. It's amazing to me how this family's story comes full circle!  If you want more information about what a "flag tour" is, I suggest you read the book.   :D

Cordula, Heidi's daughter and Hanna's niece, became an elite athlete in East Germany.  She started out as a swimmer and then switched sports to cycling.  Cordula was given the very best training and was treated almost as well as the communist elites: She was given traveling privileges for competitions as well as extra money to purchase western goods.  She must have been extremely talented because neither of her parents ever joined the communist party which limited them professionally.

As the Soviet Bloc countries toppled like dominoes, East Germany was a last holdout as Honecker didn't want to have anything to do with Mikhail Gorbachev's "glasnost" or "perestroika." But after our President Ronald Reagan demanded that Gorbachev "tear down" the Berlin Wall, East Germany's days were numbered.   Eventually Hanna would reunite with her surviving family members.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

President Reagan delivering a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987

"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace...come here to this gate.  Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.  Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
~President Ronald Reagan

Today, there are numerous monuments honoring Ronald Reagan in Berlin.

I am so honored to have read about Nina Willner and her family in her well-written memoir. She perfectly balances family stories and history chronologically with an abundance of photographs.  The reader glimpses the diametrical lives of the split family during the forty years of tyranny in East Germany.  I hope many Americans will read this important book: it's a reminder that the only way the left can govern is through lies, deceptions, and oppression. The leftists can never win on policy as history proves repeatedly.  I highly recommend this book to all freedom-loving readers.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Until next time...

Happy reading!
Ricki Jill


  1. RJ, this sounds like a winner and a book I would enjoy. I enjoyed your review and all the photos. Hope the girls are home for long and wonderful Labor Day weekend. Hugs........

  2. RJ, such a great review. I need to find some time to read....LOL Have a great holiday weekend. Thanks for your sweet visit.

  3. I have to get this one! Even more, I want to sit down with this woman and get to know her better.

  4. Pinned! I know I will enjoy this. Thank You!
    Have you read Lilac Girls?

  5. You're killing me. I can't keep up with all your good book ideas.

  6. What an amazing story. I'm so glad you loved it! Thank you for being on the tour!

  7. This looks fascinating. Thanks for providing such a detailed review -- really gives me a good sense of the book and the writing.

    I'm a new follower (courtesy of Stacey!) A reader and an artist/crafter/writer so it's fun to discover a kindred spirit!

  8. Looks like a great book. How, I wish I had more time to read. Can't seem to keep up with blogging and find extra time.
    I will share this with husband. When we travel we 'read' or listen to books on tape and that works well for us.

  9. Sounds fantastic! That part of history has always fascinated me~ thanks RJ and happy reading!

  10. I loved this memoir too! I thought the author did a great job picking events from her family's history that were exciting to read about and making them into an engaging story. Definitely not ordinary.


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I'm Ricki Jill. Welcome! I'm honored that you're reading my blog. I enjoy sharing my creative lifestyle @ The Bookish Dilettante. For more information about my blog, please read the Start Here page. Thank-you for stopping by, and I hope you'll consider following me via email.

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