Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book #19: Germany - Auslander by Paul Dowswell

It’s around the world day again! For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, I am collecting books set in eighty different countries (hence the blog title around the world in 80 books), and I’m finally starting again. Today is Germany.

I didn’t really want to do a war book for Germany, seeing as that’s at least half of the English-language books you see that are set in Germany, but Auslander was too good to ignore. If you know any YA books set in Germany that aren’t about WWII, please add them in the comments! Feel free to add those that are about WWII too :D

Auslander is about Peter, a Polish boy with German heritage who is caught up in the annexing/invasion of Poland. He’s recently orphaned and living in an orphanage when doctors come around looking for good Aryan specimens to adopt into German families. Peter happens to be an excellent Aryan specimen, and is adopted by a professor of eugenic research in Berlin.

Dowswell has done an amazing amount of research for this book, and deftly weaves it into the narrative. I was struck by the difference between a memoir/diary, history books and straight fiction – in a memoir or diary, you have the perspective of someone who was really there, but everything is dependent on what they thought was relevant at the time, or the things that jump out of their memory. In a history book, you get a (hopefully) straight account of the facts on a wider scale, and maybe examinations of artefacts from the period. In fiction, an author can explore a time period and present exactly what they want to the reader, in a way that makes the most impact.

I’ve read memoirs and diaries and history books about WWII, and been to museums, but Auslander has a whole different view. Because it's fiction, Dowswell can be honest with his characters without pointing the finger at anyone, so Peter does not immediately take the Nazis-are-bad position, and you sort through ideas and choices with him. The real artefacts, such as the Nazi dolls’ house and the Hitler Christmas carol, seem much more real when they’re in the houses and mouths of characters rather than in museums. One of my favourite bits in the novel (don’t read the end of this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled) is when the youngest daughter in Peter’s new family asks why they don’t tell that story about the baby and the star any more on Christmas. The father answers with a quote about how things that were good for the old generation are not good for the new, and wonders who said it. The eldest daughter acidly replies that it’s from the Bible.

It would be interesting to know what people who lived through the same kind of experiences think of the book. I really enjoyed it (though beware, some of it is horrifying, as the subject matter must be), but I’m a sheltered 21st century Kiwi. It’s amazing, and quite scary, to know that normal people did incredibly terrible things, and incredibly good things too.

Any young adult books set in Germany that you know and love?

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