In Schlepping through the Alps, Sam Apple invites us to accompany him on journeys into the Austrian mountains, the world of a wandering shepherd, and his own confused psyche as he searches for love, roots, and anti-Semites. His narrative wanders freely among drama, humor, fantasy, and dream, an insightful mix of profile and memoir, history and current events. Early on, Apple finds himself mired in sheep stool, dealing with big boots, small overalls, dehydration, a slipped disk, and an imagined case of rabies. Then the story begins.
Subtitled My Search for Austria's Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd, this is the tale of an odd couple, a Jewish vegetarian and a secular lamb-chop herder who sings Yiddish folk songs to his sheep. The shepherd, Hans Breuer, freely shares everything with Apple, from his sex life (active and complicated) to his politics (communist and complicated) and doesn't make it easy for Apple to maintain even a little professional distance. When Breuer encourages the young reporter to stay at his place by assuring Apple he can eventually return the favor, Apple imagines 625 sheep crammed into his apartment. And when his source checks to see that he is well blanketed one night, "I pictured Mike Wallace being tucked in by one of his subjects after a long day of reporting." That's not the way he planned to relate, but little goes as planned. Initially, he wants to make sense of Breuer's relationship with Judaism. Instead, he comes to understand his own.
Apple made his visit in 2001, shortly after Austria elected a right-wing extremist party that had played down Nazi atrocities. When he wants to ferret out anti-Semites, he walks through a city, first with a baseball cap labeled Austria to make potential sources comfortable, and then wearing a yarmulke, to see how they react. Feeling let down when the anti-Semitism he finds is more subtle than he expected, he confronts his own assumptions and prejudices. His romance with an Austrian woman, who has family links to the Nazis and participates in a no-racism group, overlaps and underscores the main story. Given to rumination, Apple worries that Irene's interest in him is a form of reparation for wrongs done to his people and that dark feelings linger beneath his attraction to her.
A 1998 U-M graduate who holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Columbia, Apple has a sense of humor about himself. He is unafraid of contradictions and complexity, and in this open and honest account of his adventures, he raises more questions than he tries to answer. Readers will meet the sheep, the shepherd's family, and, finally, the anti-Semites in this book, Apple's first. Ann Arborites can meet Apple and Breuer at Hillel on Monday, April 4, for a reading, signing, and, yes, a singing.