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The ""Wolf Children""--non-Nazi juvenile delinquents who scavenged through WW II Germany and occasionally joined the local anti-Hitler activists--are a curious phenomenon in the history of the Third Reich. But Wiseman, author of such intelligent, textured thrillers as Savage Day and A Game of Secrets, can find only a few striking episodes and atmospheric vignettes in this intriguing material: his disjointed attempt at more full-scale, heroic suspense falls flat. The novel's first half takes place in 1939 Cologne, where we're introduced to an initially vivid, ultimately sketchy cast of characters. Two roughly likable kiddie-gang members--14-year-old Otto (""Robber"") and 11-year-old Rolf (""Louse Boy"")--have scrappy run-ins with the town's Hitler Youth brigade, mocking the HJs (some of them former chums) with hip bravado: ""Howdedowda! Swing Heil! Swing Heil!"" We also meet Rolf's 15-year-old sister Franzi, an experienced Lolita (thanks in part to a sneakily incestuous father) who attracts the obsessive lust of midde-aged creep Willi Gast, a Party street leader engaged in extortion, corruption, and theft (from terrified Jews). And, though little real drama develops, this central quartet does go through some major shifts of situation: Otto and Roll, now in league with Communist lad Thee (and his bumbling brother Benno), are shipped off to a corrective ""youth hostel,"" from which they soon escape; meanwhile, Gast manages to isolate Franzi--partly by sending her frail mother off to an asylum--and make her his mistress. Then, in an ungainly jump to the bombed-out Cologne of 1944-45, the book's second half picks up these characters and packs them into a small, apparently fact-based slice of guerrilla melodrama. The boys, together with Franzi (long-estranged from Gast), are now ""Wolf Children,"" living amid the rubble, scavenging and stealing food to stay alive. (While Franzi uses sex to get butter, the boys recoil from homosexual quasi-prostitution.) They're soon joined by Kurt, an ailing young deserter who is nursed back to health--and passionately loved--by Franzi. And this group, after getting a gun and becoming proficient at robbery, eventually agrees to engage in some terrorism on behalf of the local Free Germany Committee: they'll steal butter, trade it for explosives on the black market (controlled by none other than Willi Gast), and do some symbolic bombing. But the scheme, complicated by Gast's enduring lust for Franzi (and Kurt's jealousy), goes badly awry--leading to a cemetary shoot-out, arrests, trial, and executions that are framed by the philosophizing of a local official who has always been ambivalent about Nazism. (""If the ones who are acceptable do not act. . .are we entitled to condemn--and hang--those who have acted but were not acceptable?"") Despite such editorializing, the Wolf Children never take on the intended moral/political stature here; nor are they fully convincing or sympathetic as individual personalities. What remains, then, is a strong evocation of low-level urban life in Nazi Germany, a few inklings of potential dramatic passion, and several powerful sequences of ironic pathos and home-front horror--including the stark suicide of a former SS-man.

Pub Date: May 27th, 1986
Publisher: Little, Brown