Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Book review: My Brother's Shadow, by Monika Schröder

In her young adult novel My Brother’s Shadow, Monika Schröder creates a starkly realistic vision of Berlin at the end of World War I.

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.

6 comments:

  1. This sounds good. Thanks for reviewing it!

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  2. Is this a translated work or an English-language original? I am guessing that if the market for translated fiction was small before it is virtually non-existent now.

    Very glad to see a substantial subject like those German post-WWI years tackled in YA historical fiction (a period crucial in understanding how the fatal events of 1932/3 came about.) I am looking forward to the guest post!

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  3. I have a particular fondness for WWI stories, but I like the end-of-war setting and the young, German perspective. Thanks for the review! I'll have to track down a copy of this.

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  4. This sounds like such an good book. I am always interested in stories that take place in Germany in the first half of the 20th century. I can't wait to read Monika Schröder guest post. Thanks for this review.

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  5. I'm pleased to see this book is of interest. I'm endeavoring to read/review more YA!

    The author writes in English (it's not a translation). You're right, Danielle, the market is very small for translations. I wish there were more.

    The book does a really good job at conveying the shifts in public sentiment during a crucial time in German history. The ending is simple but powerful and very effective.

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  6. I don't have much to say except that, like the rest, it sounds like an excellent book. I usually read about WWI but I do realize that the impact WWI had on the world.

    I wanted to bring this book to Alex's attention, but I see he already commented.

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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