From a book that begins with the line, “We were the only ones left alive,” a reader will typically expect a terrifying story, and My Brother’s Secret by Dan Smith delivers. Set in West Germany during the summer of 1941, Smith’s novel tells the tale of Karl Friedmann, a twelve-year-old boy, “trusted and reliable and ready to die for the Führer” (10). Although Karl feels sympathy for his weaker comrades, he wants to make the world a better and stronger place, so he participates with vigor during physical education, which has been replaced with a Hitler Youth curriculum. A lot transpires in Karl’s life to challenge his beliefs, enabling him to determine whether the war is a glorious fight or a terrible nightmare of death and waste.
After he hears “the sound of the world falling apart” (25), the cloud of delusion begins to lift. The propaganda Karl learned in the Deutches Jungvolk breaks down further when he discovers that he doesn’t have to wear a uniform to be a good German and that to be brave and strong requires loyalty to family and a purer form of patriotism than that preached to the youth through Hitler, who desired “a brutal, domineering, fearless, and cruel youth.”
With influence from both his seventeen year old brother Stefan and his friend Lisa Herz , who has eyes the color of chocolate, Karl confronts another opinion, that “Hitler is killing [their] fathers” (53) and that playing war with the Hitler Youth is more about group belonging and brainwashing than about courage and being the best.
Smith’s book tells a chilling story about a horrific time in history, a time when hell came to earth, when death came knocking, and when friends and neighbors reported each other or stood by and watched the terror of torture, too afraid to step in against the Gestapo. It also memorializes the Edelweiss Pirates, a youth organization that rebelled against paramilitary infiltrations with courageous acts of defiance.
This is also a coming-of-age story from which readers discern how war infiltrates the homes of every citizen and how propaganda poisons the mind. Readers accompany Karl as he learns lessons about trust, truth, lies, honor, home, family, trouble, traitors, and human behavior in situations of duress.
Those who read Tunes for Bears to Dance to by Robert Cormier, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, or The Boy in Striped Pajamas: A Fable by John Boyne will likely appreciate Smith’s similarly crafted historical fiction.
- Posted by Donna