Debut novelist Fischer takes readers to post–World War II Europe, where a young boy and his parents dream of immigrating to America.
Konrad Kemper, the engaging narrator of this tale, was born in Yugoslavia. During the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, Konrad’s father, Hans, was conscripted into the German army and wound up in an American prisoner-of-war camp. At war’s end, Konrad and his mother, Anni, were placed in one of Marshal Tito’s prison camps: “We…had lost our farm in Yugoslavia to Tito’s Communists. They equated German speakers with fascists although we had lived there for two centuries.” Now, Hans has been released and is working on a farm in Austria. Nine-year-old Konrad and his mother make a dangerous escape. In 1948, the family is reunited in Austria at the Straubling refugee camp. The town is flooded with physically and emotionally wounded people from all over Eastern Europe; there are few jobs to be had, and food is scarce. However, the Kempers have a far-reaching goal: One day, they aim to make it to the United States. While their campmates move on to Canada, Australia, and South America, the Kemper family acquires a small shack, working and waiting for American authorities to accept their visa application. Fischer leads readers through the family’s day-to-day struggle in Straubling in a voice that captures the innocence, vulnerability, and enthusiasm of a boy on the edge of leaving childhood. The prose is detailed, conjuring a visceral portrait of the postwar wreckage—the grime and smells of the refugee barracks, the ever present hunger, and people’s hope for something better in the New World. For example, while climbing through the American Army’s garbage dump, Konrad finds treasures—pencils, a spoon, a Classics Illustrated comic book, a batch of unused American Christmas cards. Insatiably curious and observant, he gradually develops an image of a United States filled with wonder, from the extravagance of disposable paper tissues to the miracle of “radios that let you see.”
A historically informative, gritty, and tender coming-of-age immigration saga.