Friday, August 29, 2008

The Boy Who Dared

In 2006, Susan Campbell Bartoletti won a very much deserved Newbery Honor citation for Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. Hitler Youth is an amazing and disturbing look at the children enrolled in the Hitler Youth as well as the Jewish children who increasingly found their lives more restricted and in danger once the Third Reich was created.

One of the stories told in Hitler Youth was that of seventeen year old Helmuth Hubener, and now Bartoletti has turned his story into a full fledged novel. The (eventual) stepson of a highly ranked Nazi official, Helmuth joins the Hitler Youth. As a faithful Mormon, Helmuth is raised to respect his country and its government, even if he disagrees with its actions. As a faithful Mormon, Helmuth is also raised to regard the Jews as God's (First) Chosen People. As a faithful Mormon, Helmuth also knows that according to the Articles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, everyone has the right to worship as they choose.

Helmuth enjoys the outdoor activities of the Hitler Youth, but he is disturbed and frightened at the escalating violence of the Nazis. When he happens upon the BBC German broadcast, he discovers that the German press covers up the increasing casualties suffered by the German military. It is a treasonable offense to listen to any non-Nazi radio station, so Helmuth must be extremely careful, as urged at the end of the BBC German broadcast, to turn the dial to a Nazi station when done listening to the broadcast.

Helmuth includes two friends in his clandestine listening, as well as anonymously distributing leaflets denouncing the Third Reich. He is caught (I'm not spoiling anything here; when the reader begins the book, Helmuth is already awaiting execution) and swiftly punished.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti brilliantly creates an atmosphere of tension, secrecy, courage, and fear. A splendid afterword explains Bartoletti's research, including her interviews with Helmuth's friends, and moving pictures of a baby-faced Helmuth and his execution chamber, memorialized with a bouquet. This is one of the most remarkable books published this year.

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