Creeping dread seeps through these fictional memories of German boyhood during the horror of Hitler’s rise to power, WWII and Russian occupation.
Through a young boy’s eyes, debut novelist Schroeder vividly portrays daily life in a village where the weather and crops are the main concerns. The boy, whose age is never disclosed, lives with his parents, and his pleasant life is untouched by politics; visits to see grandparents and swimming in the lake are the highlights of his life. Gradually, however, the Nazis and their march to war begin to intrude. At first, everyone believes the propaganda that the country is merely defending itself from attacks by surrounding states, and life goes on much as before, with only the occasional disruption. Even the outbreak of war fails to disrupt complacency, but soon, men are swept into the Wehrmacht, women are widowed, food becomes scarce, and the Russian Front turns placid souls into savages. One villager deserts the army and has no qualms about shooting civilians to stay alive. Even the boy’s aging father, a railroad clerk, is shoved into uniform to perpetuate the hopeless mission. There’s a brief period of hope when the Americans and British arrive, but they hand over control to the Russians, and a new grim existence takes hold. Yet the boy’s mother never gives up struggling for a better life for her son. Schroeder punctuates each chapter with a political and military timeline of the period—an effective way of placing events in context. The underlying message commendably points out humanity’s capacity for criminal folly, where selfish desires blot out compassion for fellow beings. But Schroeder makes a curious assertion about what Hitler could have done instead of committing suicide—among his supposed options: “He could have fled to any Jew-hating country and been welcomed with open arms as a hero”—that’s at odds with the views of many historians.
An insightful reminder that people can be unaware of the outside world until it’s too late.