Reluctant German soldier Erich, just 17 and part English—a fact he carefully conceals—has been incarcerated in a Canadian prisoner-of-war camp since recovering from injuries sustained when his ship sunk.
He's being brutally bullied by devout Nazis who sense his waning loyalty and, in an overworked trope, also remind him of his older brother's cruelty during his childhood. For 12-year-old Max, the son of immigrants, the situation is ironically similar. School is much like a prison for him, and his bullies are out-of-control older boys who resent his German background. The adults around him ignore the brutality. After Erich is sent to an Alberta logging camp for the winter, the two cross paths and become friends. Someone in the camp is staging dangerous “accidents” and Erich, under pressure from fellow prisoners, tries to get to the bottom of it. Suspense mounts as each boy tries different, often unsuccessful, methods of coping and ultimately resolving their worsening situations. Erich and Max, richly developed characters, make the uncertain outcome matter. Christmas, a Cree, befriends them both; genial yet emotionally restrained, he—disappointingly—comes across as more “noble Indian” caricature than flesh and blood.
The story’s complexity and the believably depicted historical setting help to compensate for this coming-of-age tale’s unevenness. (Historical fiction. 11-18)