Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. The Boy Who Dared: A Novel Based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth (4 out of 4 stars)
Any modern author of World War II / Holocaust stories, memoirs, poems, novels, or plays walks a tightrope with every word. Most authors want to tell honest stories (or as honest as memory can be) but are not always armed with the facts. Fortunately, Susan Campbell Bartoletti did her research. Her new historical novel, The Boy Who Dared: A Novel Based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth, rings true on every page, from the fascination almost everyone in Germany had for Hitler’s cult of personality to many Germans’ eventual disillusionment and rebellion, both overt and silent. Through research and interviews, Ms. Bartoletti reconstructs an engaging study of a good German who wants to help his countrymen and fatherland, but betrays the Nazis to save his friends and his soul.
Helmuth Hübener is a proud 17-year-old ex-Nazi waiting for execution. While waiting, he remembers the events that led him to his jail cell and death sentence. At first, the Nazis are exciting: “Brown-shirted men wearing black-and-red armbands and tall, black, shiny boots are marching. One swaggering Brownshirt bends over Helmuth. ‘What a big boy you are,’ he says. ‘Do you want to be a soldier for the Fatherland?
Helmuth likes to play with toy soldiers . . . He nods and tells the Brownshirt, “Yes!” (4). But Helmuth’s grandparents are scared of Hitler and the dreadful possibilities he offers to Germany: “‘Oma sits next to Opa and says, “‘Hitler frightens me. Those crazy eyes of his . . .’ Helmuth knows they are afraid of Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party. But he doesn’t understand why they fear a man who wants to fight for Germany and make it better” (9-10). However, as Helmuth’s rights at school disappear, he is forced to join the Hitler Youth, and his home life deteriorates as his mother starts dating Hugo, a gruff, dictatorial Nazi Rottenführer (non-commissioned corporal), Helmuth gradually becomes skeptical of the Nazis’ intentions. But criticism has its price in the “new” Reich; when Helmuth complains loudly that the Nazis forbid fun things like American dancing and “un-German” music and literature, his practical, pragmatic brother Gerhard demonstrates the fear of the common German citizens of the time: “Gerhard grabs his brother’s hand, grips it, iron-fisted. ‘Stop that,’ he whispers, shocked. ‘Are you a fool? Do you want the neighbors to hear?’” (92). Despite such warnings and to the surprise of his friends, Helmuth feels compelled to battle the Nazis on the only battleground on which he can compete—the war of information. This personal war drives Helmuth to the brink of trouble so threatening that even his strong Mormon faith may not be able to provide him solace, and he is forced to choose between his friends and family on one side and Truth on the other.
Truth can be felt like rain or danger in the air; as in her 2005 Newbery Honor Hitler Youth: Growing Up In Hitler’s Shadow, Ms. Bartoletti does not shy away from the horrifying but undeniable reality that Hitler bewitched and entranced many “good” German citizens who felt more beaten at Versailles than on the battlefield. I still remember the chill that went down my spine when I read in Hitler Youth about good young people rebelling against their parents for not being good Nazis. Both the Hitler Youths in her 2005 non-fiction work and Helmuth in her new book share the excitement and disillusionment of Germany between the wars, and with a presidential election looming, there is no better time than now to explore these powerful forces. The Boy Who Dared is a fine example of World War II / Holocaust literature that will resonate with students and adults; its message that Truth can be a costly luxury is an important historical lesson no society or individual can afford to forget.


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