Portrait of an Activist: Book review: Petra by Shaena Lambert

by Katherine Fawcett

Petra, the latest book by award-winning Vancouver author Shaena Lambert, is a compelling fictionalized biography of feminist, activist and Germany’s original Green Party leader Petra Kelly

Set in Germany in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, it’s a meticulously researched and creatively presented study of a charismatic peace activist’s passion and influence. It follows her rise to near cult status, her subsequent fall from grace into obscurity, and her death by gunshot. The background of the Greens, beginning with anti-nuclear weapons and pro-human rights movements during the Cold War is fascinating. But it’s the personal lens through which Lambert examines Kelly and other key characters of the era that makes this book sizzle.  

Central to the novel is Petra’s love affair with Emil Gerhardt, a (married) NATO general who shocked the world by converting to the Greens’ political camp. Emil’s character is based on real-life Gert Bastian, who left the military to protest the stationing of mid-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Emil’s reflection on his Nazi past is both fascinating and disturbing. “I was brainwashed,” he says of his participation in the Hitler Youth and his role as a soldier following orders in the Second World War. How this stands with Petra illustrates the deep complexity of human nature. 

One of the most intriguing characters in the book is Manfred Schwartz, the primary narrator, Petra’s political ally, friend and former lover. Something of a third wheel in the high-profile lives of Petra and Emil, Manfred admires and protects Petra, but eventually comes to recognize her egocentrism, hypocrisy and search for what he calls a “father figure.” 

Throughout the book, Lambert employs a shifting point of view, from Manfred’s to an omniscient perspective. Although sometimes jarring, this technique was oddly effective.

The combination of idealism, espionage, jealousy, forgiveness, power, love, betrayal and murder gives “Petra” a Shakespearean texture. Indeed, the plot and characters, from Emil’s shunned wife Helena, to the East German political activist Clara Pohl, to the women who once raved over Petra and came to shun her, have a tragic quality to them that is both universal and personal, not unlike The Bard’s great works. 

Not being terribly well-informed on the politics of the time, I had to remind myself that the characters in the book were based on real people, and the events in its pages were real stories being reported by the news sources around the world when I was in high school. Petra is a book for history buffs, political junkies and anyone fascinated by the psychology and motivations of those involved in deep and impactful activism. It’s also a love story, a lesson on grassroots activism and a fearless look at the complicated private life of a controversial public figure. 

Katherine Fawcett is an award-winning, Squamish-based author and playwright. Her books include The Little Washer of Sorrows and The Swan Suit. She will be moderating Insights from Insiders: Trade Publishing in Canada Today with seven publishers and editors on Oct. 15 at the Whistler Writers Festival.

Shaena Lambert will be reading as part of the festival’s Literary Cabaret Watch Party, also on Oct. 15. 

The 20th-anniversary edition of the Whistler Writers Festival run from Oct. 14 to 17. For tickets and the full schedule, visit whistlerwritersfest.com