In 1918, sixteen-year-old Moritz Schmidt works as a printer for the Berliner Daily, which is obliged to publish patriotic bulletins from the German Reich even though its people know they’re losing the war. With food rationing in place, a hearty meal is a distant memory. Instead, citizens stand in lines for bread and stretch their supplies by consuming turnip soup and ersatz coffee.
Moritz's home life is difficult. His father was killed at Verdun, his older brother Hans is off fighting at the Western Front, and his frail Oma (grandma) suffers from dementia. At the same time, his mother and sister attend secret meetings of the Social Democrats, who work to bring down the Kaiser and his oppressive regime. This introduces a note of hope into the narrative but causes confusion for Moritz, who doesn’t know who to believe.
Succumbing to peer pressure and missing his brother, Moritz joins Hans’s old gang, a group of bullies and thieves. After they threaten trouble for a new friend of his, a Jewish girl named Rebecca, his conscience begins to awaken. He also starts paying attention to his mentor at the paper, who sees potential in him as a journalist, and who considers his mother a hero for her outspoken stance. Then Hans comes home – crippled, angry, and eager to find a scapegoat for his and Germany’s losses.
Moritz narrates the tale in a non-intrusive present tense. His innocence can make him seem younger than his years, but his honesty and openness draw readers into his gripping story. The pacing is brisk, and tension builds out of the bleak atmosphere.
Not surprisingly given the author’s background (she grew up in Germany), she paints a detailed picture of the local geography and culture. Teenagers may find Moritz’s coming-of-age journey and growing romance with Rebecca the most compelling, but adult readers may discover that Anna Schmidt, the woman he calls Mama, steals the show. She is strong, courageously optimistic, and devoted to her family, but not even she knows how to cure her wounded elder son.
This wise and provocative read doesn’t offer up easy answers, which may be its greatest strength. The sobering ending makes it plain that for these characters and for Germany, the tale is far from over.
My Brother's Shadow was published today by Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus & Giroux at $16.99 (hardcover, 217pp, with detailed author's note on the historical background). Look for a guest post by Monika Schröder later this week about the research process for her book.