... astonishing ... turns out to be wilder and more expansive than a standard-issue biography ... a real-life thriller with a cruel ending ... Donner writes sensitively about Mildred’s travails while also describing how women were expected to serve a Nazi regime dedicated to the idea that 'the role of women is to populate Germany with good Germans' ... so finely textured that I can’t even begrudge Donner’s decision to narrate events in the present tense; a choice that can sometimes seem like a stagy effort to amp up the drama instead comes across as an effective device for conveying what it felt like in real time to experience the tightening vise of the Nazi regime ... Amid all the tension and the horror, Donner has an eye for stray bits of grim comedy.
Donner had access to material only family could find. She also, cleverly, compensates for what we don’t know about Harnack with what can be gleaned about her many acquaintances ... These other stories have the effect of opening up the book and turning what might have been a narrowly constructed biography into a much broader reflection on political action. They also add nuance to the question of what it means to resist ... Donner quotes passages from her sources at length, letting the reader dwell on facts rather than galloping through them. She does this stylishly, sometimes presenting events in chronological lists or highlighting fragments from her research as stand-alone text. The archival quality of the book, its enumeration and cataloging of sources, is both surprising for a biography—too rarely the site of literary innovation—and affecting ... Like the network it describes, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days is stronger for its decentralization. Its crowdedness serves as a reminder: The greatest acts of heroism are not always done alone.
Ms. Donner’s use of the present tense increases the feeling of inevitability as she unfolds her story to its horrific conclusion. This is a powerful book. A nonfiction narrative with the pace of a political thriller, it’s imbued with suspense and dread. There are occasional lapses in the writing, and sometimes the cliff-hangers are a little forced. But it’s a deeply affecting biography, meticulously researched and illustrated with photographs, documents, diary entries, smuggled notes, and fragments of a Gestapo questionnaire Mildred was made to fill out in prison on her last day alive ... Ms. Donner evocatively brings to life the giddy feeling of freedom under the Weimar regime in Berlin and how swiftly it eroded. Her account of the decline of liberties is harrowing. Her description of the day Hitler was named chancellor, Jan. 30, 1933, puts the reader right into the scene with its details of the Nazi victory parade ... Ms. Donner’s reports of the torture inflicted by the Gestapo are so gruesome I had to stop reading.
... gripping ... Donner, a great-great-niece of Mildred, writes with clarity and intensity of purpose. She does not hold back in presenting the gruesome realities of life in Nazi Germany. Her descriptions regarding the last days for Mildred, forced to live and then beheaded in the squalor of the Ravensbrück concentration camp (exclusively for women) north of Berlin, are graphic; but they are also accurate and truthful, even in the revelation of what happened to the lifeless bodies of Mildred and many other tortured women convicted of various crimes ... Donner decided not to follow strict chronology in developing her story line. The effect is to build suspense, even as she introduces a host of interesting characters ... an exceptionally well-crafted book. The story line will keep readers turning pages, perhaps even hoping that by some positive twist of fate Mildred, Arvid, and others involved in their resistance Circle will survive. That they didn’t does not mean that they failed, rather that they nobly tried to succeed, as dramatically and poignantly presented by Rebecca Donner in this very moving and thoughtful book.
... a deeply moving act of recovery ... In a photo of those pages reproduced in the book, Mildred Harnack’s cramped yet careful handwriting crystallizes Donner’s goal: to write her heroic forebear back into history, to bring her back to life.
Despite its ostensibly forbidding subject matter this is a thrilling and inspiring book. It is a treasure trove for lovers of biography, new writing and the history of the Third Reich. Donner’s style is startling with sometimes short, even single word sentences ... there is some invented dialogue, neither of which this reader is entirely comfortable with, but the effect is to create the atmospherics of the period, and to help show us how Mildred Harnack saw the world. The facts tell us that Mildred was not an easy person; Donner captures this and uses her sources masterfully ... The book gives fresh insight into the so-called Red Orchestra of Soviet spies in Nazi Germany, telling the story from the bottom up rather than from the top down, which has been the usual approach.
Donner not only has the scoop, she’s also a very good writer ... Donner sees biography as a creative art that can fuse elements of narrative non-fiction, essay writing and espionage thriller. The result is life-writing that draws level with fiction. Written in a pacey, suspenseful present tense, it’s biography with a pulse ... At times the breathless, thrilleresque sentences create an atmosphere of melodrama that the action doesn’t quite match up to. Where Donner excels, though, is in vividly conjuring a world and its characters ... A superb, sure-footed work of historical detection conceived with a powerful intelligence.
[Donner] brings forensic and literary skills—along with access to family papers and a key witness—to a story at once deeply personal and broadly inspiring ... Donner writes mostly in the present tense, breaks her story into short takes, and employs a novelist’s toolkit to set scenes and imagine her characters’ thoughts. Some might prefer a more conventional narrative—the story surely is interesting enough without such gimmickry. But the devices do serve both to immerse readers in the rush of history and paper over evidentiary gaps. The book’s limits reflect the limits of historical knowledge Heath’s story, though historically marginal, looms large in the book. Other fascinating characters parade through its pages.
Photos and snippets of letters and papers are sprinkled throughout this compelling book, which reads like a tragic novel where we wish we didn't know the ending ... knowing her terrible fate from the onset shouldn't dissuade you from reading this page-turner about Harnack's perilous journey, no matter how much you know about the Holocaust and the brave resistance movement ... Donner's descriptive style takes us inside Nazi Germany and makes the book hard to put down ... Mildred Harnack didn't survive to see the end of the war or Hitler's downfall. But her heroic actions may now get the attention they deserve through this heartbreaking work written by her descendant.
... untapped family sources...help Donner evoke Mildred well, including humanising details such as the occasional problems with her marriage. That said, this is far from a conventional history book. The history of the Third Reich takes up a high proportion of the text—there are whole chapters in which Mildred does not appear. The result is certainly a lively read but one that occasionally stumbles over historical detail and is more categorical about some events than most historians would be. We should nonetheless be grateful that Mildred Harnack has received proper recognition at last, although this is unlikely to prove the last word.
[A] stunning biography ... Donner’s research is impeccable, and her fluid prose and vivid character sketches keep the pages turning as the story moves toward its inevitable, tragic conclusion. This standout history isn’t to be missed.
The astounding life story of [Donner's] great-great-aunt Mildred Fish-Harnack ... Donner’s meticulous research and novelist’s sensibility make for a riveting biography of a remarkable and brave woman; there’s also good insight into the German Resistance ... Recommended to all who enjoy engaging narrative nonfiction.
Donner has clearly worked hard in East German, Soviet, and recently released American archives to tell an impressive story ... Mostly novelistic, the narrative contains some manufactured tension, melodrama, and passages of purple prose and paragraphs broken apart or clipped short to create a dramatic effect that feels forced. Despite the breathless delivery, this is a welcome contribution to the history of the anti-Nazi underground.