Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review: My Brother's Shadow, by Monika Schroder (Frances Foster Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Set in Berlin in 1918, in the final days of World War I, this new novel tells the story of sixteen-year old Moritz, whose family's existence, like that of everyone else in Germany, has been ravaged by the effects of the seemingly endless war.  His father was killed on the battlefield, his older brother, Hans, is serving in the trenches on the Western front, his little sister has died of illness, and his mother spends all her time either working at an ammunition factory or attending socialist party meetings.  There's little to eat, with food rationed, and everything tasting of turnips, and people butchering horses who fall dead in the streets.  Moritz, who works as an apprentice printer, tries his best to make sense of it all, wondering who is right--his brother, who says it's an honor to serve the Kaiser, or his mother, who bemoans the fact that her husband "died for our foolish Kaiser, who loves his uniforms and his yachts."  Soon Moritz is given a chance to work as a journalist for one of Berlin's daily papers, covering the very socialist rallies where his mother and others are speaking out against the Kaiser and capitalist injustice. 

When Moritz's brother Hans returns from the front with horrible injuries, missing half his arm and blind in one eye, Hans is plagued by nightmares about the war, and sees the Jews as scapegoats for all of Germany's problems.  Morris, on the other hand, is having his first romance--with a Jewish girl.   The book's ominous conclusion foreshadows the increasing persecution of the Jews that will happen in Germany during the 1930's.

Author Monika Schroeder, who grew up in Berlin, provides an author's note discussing how the fall of 1918 was a pivotal time in German history, with the end of the "Great War," the Kaiser's abdication, and the establishment of a democratic government in the beginning of 1919.  With the Germans' humiliating defeat, conservatives and military leaders began blaming the Jews, the socialists, and the communists for all of Germany's woes, laying the groundwork for Hitler's rise to power.

My Brother's Shadow is a very thought-provoking and well-written book about a period ignored in most young adult fiction, which more typically focuses either on World War I or World War II and the few years immediately preceding that conflict.  We can easily identify with Moritz, whose story is told in the first person, and his divided family loyalties.  While the book covers some weighty issues, Moritz is also a typical teenage boy, interested in his first kiss with a girl.  We can sympathize with Moritz's mother as well, a strong character who is very involved in politics, and even his brother Hans, whose bitter experiences and injuries at the front have transformed his personality.  This novel would be a good choice to read along with Russell Freedman's outstanding nonfiction book on World War I published last year, The War to End All Wars:  World War I. 

Below is the book trailer for My Brother's Shadow:

On Friday, November 11, The Fourth Musketeer is pleased to have a guest post from author Monika Schroeder and a special giveaway of this excellent novel (U.S. and Canadian addresses only). Please see Friday's post to enter.

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