December 20, 2023
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
Sometime nearing a year ago, I read this novel online and have just received a physical copy. Why would I want a physical copy having already read the book? Well, for one, I am a book collector—I collect beyond my needs or even perhaps my wants. Second, however, is that there is a difference in literature’s significance when you are able to hold in your hands the object which brought so many inexplicable emotions, the most prevalent of them being an impenetrable pain—and for good reason. The sheer extent of this period’s cruelty is perhaps the reason I am most attracted to the World War II era, and I read nearly anything which concerns it even remotely. This insistence hasn’t steered me wrong once—and continues to not with this novel. Short in length, it is purposely compacted to emphasize the dreadfully short time a boy and, still, a boy may spend together, or simply the dreadfully short time the prisoners in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp have to live—and what a dreadful life they did. Shone in this novel is a crushing humility, a scarce shred of humanity amidst all that claims to be but is certainly not, and the lingering substance of a teacher’s lesson, of teaching what must never be repeated into our contemporary times, to our contemporary children, the only life forms surviving which are void entirely of prejudice, of bias, of a family’s or a world’s spoiling. This novel survives simply as a testament to cruelty, a representation of humanity’s turbulent yet mighty and eventual survival, and an ungentle reminder of the ferocity of our own selves when we are built blindly in the name of hate, a ferocity that Boyne tells us must never be reinvented in “this day and age.”
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
One of the greatest forms of strength—for Henry Fleming, anyway, or Stephen Crane himself—is rationalizing your coarsest insecurities, most ominous thoughts, and substantive concerns. Fleming, intoxicated with a young boy’s desire for battle, hadn’t accumulated for his own despairs until a bit too late—he abandoned his second battle, flushed with physical exhaustion and mental obscurity. Stephen Crane implemented emphatic descriptions to specifically characterize his characters, using each individual as a representative of a behavioral element of war. Fleming was never, and likely will never, be regarded as a war hero. From fleeing the scene at the whistle of a bullet to succumbing to his inferences, Crane’s story centers on a boy who may have not been the sharpest player on the team. But he had reverence, and he was valiant. This fealty may have not arisen in an act to insulate his regiment, or to sacrifice himself, but to silence the mockery, silence himself, and to act as he was meant to. I believe Fleming was never truly meant for any other scene, any other environment, or any other mindset. And this was achieved with struggle turn experience—and demonstrated with upmost literary grace. So, the question still remains: Are they a part of something larger? No. Do they represent something larger? Indefinitely.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
This is a novel I was introduced to months ago via a list of book recommendations. What initially drew me to it was its foundation: it is based in World War II. Four refugees, four different storylines, four different perspectives intertwine in the battle for safety and survival, the ultimate destination being the Wilhelm Gustloff ship. This novel tells the forgotten tale of not only the ship’s fate, but the realities of the lives of fleeing refugees. Thoroughly researched and years in the making, the characters are lovable and relatable, the storyline is beyond thrilling, and it is a truly phenomenal read. It held a 9/10 throughout the entire story until I came to the end. That is what truly makes the novel. It satisfies the heart-pumping exhilaration of an adrenaline junkie, the worried gaze of a mother over her children, and seals the fate of a tragically misplaced and untimely love story.
The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler by James Cross Giblin
My brother first purchased this book years ago for a research assignment on Hitler, long before he realized he could’ve just used the Internet. Needless to say, he never ended up reading it, and during the annual spring cleaning, I eventually ended up stealing it off his shelves and it’s been on mine ever since. This nonfiction rendition pertains directly to Adolf Hitler and his life, not so much World War II. It is a wonderfully detailed autobiographical portrait of a wonderfully horrid man, including personal details about him I was shocked to realize I didn’t already know. James manages to present the unbiased, purely factual recap of Hitler’s life, and in such an easy-to-understand, non-sensational manner suitable for all ages.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
In all my years of reading, this is my all-time favorite novel. It belongs on the shelf next to The Diary of Anne Frank and any and all novels, fiction or nonfiction, which detail World War II. The novel is a spirited invention of the innocence and ambition of a 10-year-old girl teetering on Nazi occupation, as she dawdles through her preteen years floundering from obedient stepdaughter to a young girl ravaged with literary inspiration and her own devious wonder, such an aspect being fueled by her stealing of books from both the mayor’s wife and from the Nazis. The Book Thief in itself is hugely ambitious, considering it is told from the perspective of Death, who becomes a beloved character, and challenges the stereotypes of World War II: that Death is unforgiving and cruel, and that all those in 1940s Germany were, too. The novel’s impact amplifies with Death’s exploring of various human emotions and interests, comprehending the presence, as well as the lack, of humanity. This is where Death and Liesel merge, because they are both attempting this challenge simultaneously. As Liesel’s town begins to crumble and her family’s living conditions swamp, the reader is introduced to the horrors and wrongful passion of war. Man’s morality is tested not only by the environmental elements but the mental destruction which often opposing Germans faced during World War II. Death in particular remains the most impactful character, as he describes the truth of collecting souls and offers foreshadows into the lives of the Germans whom he encounters. He speaks of the fragility of life, the weakening of humanity; however, the contentment in knowing he is collecting souls destined only for better. Death helps to appreciate human’s frailty and morality; however, Markus Zusak is to thank for creating the most impassioned novel I have ever read.
Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz
My brother gave this one to me several years back after a bout of cleaning out his closet and bookshelves, and for being an unrelenting adversary to reading, he claimed to enjoy this book—and that is exceptionally high praise. We both share a fascination with wars, as disturbing as that may sound, and often we’ve been able to recommend things to one another, most of those recommendations never actually being pursued. Published by Scholastic, I believe he got this one year from the Book Fair at our elementary school—which is rightful considering the substance is harrowing; however, not graphic—and based on the real-life stories of Ruth and Jack Gruener following Gratz’s interviewing them. With minimal creative liberties taken, the novel spans the Grueners’ enduring of, first, an anxiously quiet childhood consisting of concealment and the midnight rendezvous of natives to be treated as refugees; and second, Jack’s successive enduring of ten different concentration camps and the horrors of such before his liberation. A testament to the unbreakable human spirit, Gratz amalgamated his literary aptitude with the courage of innocent children—two of millions—and succeeds in recognition for the Grueners and the reconciliation the virtuous managed to achieve.