When eighth graders Andrej Tschichatschow and Mike Klingenberg don’t receive invitations to the popular Tatiana Cosic’s birthday party, they set off to make their own fun on an epic adventure across Germany in a stolen Lada. Bound for Wallachia without a map, the boys experience “the feeling of invincibility. No accident, no authority, no law of nature could stop us” (209). As they travel, they discuss life, death, love, and sexuality. They also encounter Isa Schmidt, who lives in the dump and shows them how to siphon gasoline; Horst Fricke, a former military sharpshooter who shoots at them and then offers them an orange soda and shares his carpe diem philosophy; and other unusual characters—many of whom the boys consider idiots or assholes. Spoiler alert: The book does contain an inordinate number of superfluous expletives, and Mike—who narrates the book—is prone to emotional extremes. One minute he’s lamenting the depressing presence of “beige senior citizens” (112) and the next he’s admiring mountains “shrouded in bluish morning mist” (163). The entire journey is almost surreal—not unlike the journey in Going Bovine by Libba Bray or that in Andrew Smith’s novel, In the Path of Falling Objects.
That Wolfgang Herndorf’s book Why We Took the Car is set in Berlin is probably evident from the character’s names, but many of the feelings experienced by the two young protagonists cross cultural lines and represent a universal junior high experience—an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows; a time of insecurity, sexual confusion, and identity crisis. Mike is a talented at high jumping, recognizing leaf patterns, and writing essays, but to his classmates, he is a walking sleeping pill. With more blood in his legs than in his brain, he runs away from the mammoth truth that he might be a coward or the most boring person on earth.
By the book’s end, the reader is left wondering whether the tale the two boys tell the judge isn’t the truth: that they steal the car and set off to “take a vacation, like normal people” (227). After all, their lives are far from normal. Tschick, whose life is cloaked in rumors, comes to school once a week, staggering and smelling of booze. Meanwhile, Mike, whose father is having an affair and whose mother is an alcoholic, lives in an upscale home with a pool. Although the two boys are socioeconomic opposites, both are left unsupervised and neglected; both are treated as trash. That they are looking to escape the squalor of their lives is more than believable and that they’re bitter and prone to depression is equally plausible. After all, whether you’re drowning or standing in the garbage dump, you can’t hold your breath forever.
With this coming-of-age book, Herndorf points out how the challenges of maturation can create one hardship too many for already overwhelmed homeless and abused youth. His story made me think of the social justice message in Maruice Sendak’s picture book We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy; it left me feeling despondent.
- Posted by Donna