Dustin tells the story of two brothers caught in the horrors of World War II in this debut novel.
When Nazi SS officers show up at his mother’s house in the middle of the night, 16-year-old Karl Elheusch knows they’ve come for him and his brothers. It’s October 1944, and Germany’s defenses are collapsing on all fronts. Hitler has ordered that all German boys over the age of 12 be pressed into military service to bolster the nation’s depleted armed forces. Sixty years later, Karl’s daughter, Ellie, waits at Washington Dulles International Airport to pick him up; it’s his first trip to the United States from Germany. But the elderly Karl suffers from chest pains soon after he arrives, so Ellie takes him to a hospital, where she learns that his heart is enlarged and will require a stent. While dozing, Karl remembers his time during the war. He and his brother, Hans, were forced to man the eastern front and were eventually captured by the Russians—an enemy that was much feared for its callous treatment of prisoners. Karl became separated from Hans and managed to escape, only to fall into the hands of American forces. As a prisoner of war, he was forced to assist in the cleanup of the Mauthausen concentration camp, where he confronted German atrocities against people he once knew. Concerned for Hans’ safety and unsure of his own fate, Karl underwent psychological torments that stayed with him for decades to come. Dustin writes in a plain but effective prose, communicating the details of Karl’s life in grim simplicity: “Prepare yourselves,” another POW warns Karl at one point. “They took a few of us to Mauthausen yesterday morning. I saw piles and piles of skeletons, dead after dead.” In an afterword, the author reveals that the novel was based on a true story, and it reads as such. This isn’t always for the best, however, as the larger themes of trauma and regret get somewhat lost in the particulars of Karl’s biography, and the serendipitous way that Karl’s past merges with his present feels almost jokey in tone. Even so, readers who are interested in semihistorical World War II stories will likely enjoy Karl’s tale.
An engaging, if somewhat facile, novel of wartime.