Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: The Auslander - Paul Dowswell

The Auslander by Paul Dowswell
Genre: YA, historical fiction
Published on August 16, 2011
Published by Bloomsbury
Pages: 304
Read From: 5.23.13 - 5.24.13

"My name is Doktor Fischer. I have something very special to tell you. You boys have been chosen as candidates for the honor of being reclaimed by the German National Community. You will undergo further examinations to establish your racial value and whether or not you are worthy of such an honor. Some of you will fail." 

When Peter's parents are killed, he is sent to an orphanage in Warsaw, Poland. But Peter is Volksdeutscher - of German blood. With his blond hair and blue eyes, he looks just like the boy on the Hitler Youth poster; the Nazis decide he is racially valuable. Indeed, a prominent German family is pleased to adopt him. But despite his new "family," Peter feels like a foreigner - an auslander - and is forming his own ideas about what he sees and what he's told. He doesn't want to be a Nazi. So he takes a risk - the most dangerous one he could possibly choose in 1942 Berlin.


Cover Blurb: Yes or No? I really like the cover; there's no second-guessing where - and when - this book takes place, and its general subject-matter. It's intriguing, attention-grabbing, ominous, and exciting at the same time. Or maybe that's just because I absolutely love WWII stories.

Characters: Unfortunately, this isn't the book's strong point. To call the characters cardboard is harsh and untrue, but to say that I became attached to them is also a falsehood. Peter Bruck, the protagonist, starts out as a young thirteen-year-old Polish boy who has just lost his parents after the fall of Warsaw. He's eager to become a German citizen, because it means an improvement in his circumstances - and leaving the horrible orphanage. So when we first meet our protagonist, it's hard to really accept him because he seems to be well on his way to becoming an ideal Nazi youth. Pretty difficult to sympathize with a person like that, right? Well, naturally Peter does have a change of heart as he learns more and more about Nazi brutality and the blatantly untrue things they teach about races. Peter never did understand their hatred for Jews - not even in the beginning, - and his view on that never changes. So while he's learning to be a perfect Brown Shirt, we Readers can cling onto the obvious nigglies that persist in the back of Peter's mind, which keep him free from complete Nazi brainwashing, and he slowly begins to form his own opinions which strongly contradict the National Socialist teachings. But did I ever really connect with him? Well, sadly no, and I think it's largely because Peter never has an iconic moment of where he really puts his foot down and denounces the Nazi party; his conversion is gradual. The rest of the characters - Gerhart Segur, Anna Reiter, Herr Kaltenbach, and Elsbeth Kaltenbach - were fascinating in the fact that they all embodied the different opinions and attitudes that were floating about Berlin at the time. Gerhart Segur isn't all that serious about his duties as a member of the Hitler Youth, but he ends up causing the most trouble for Peter when he's forced to cooperate with the Gestapo. He doesn't want to, but he turns a blind eye and tells himself that he did all he could - which is something a lot of Germans did. Meanwhile, Anna Reiter and her parents put on a facade of loyalty to the National Socialist party, while they are secretly hiding Jews. Herr Kaltenbach is the very persona of a loyal "one-hundred percenter" - a true Nazi, while Elsbeth Kaltenbach - his daughter, started out believing in the Nazi cause, but began to doubt some of the their ideals when she has a very personal encounter with their "cleansing of undesirables" from society. As characters, though, I didn't really become attached to any of them, or really hate them. They were figures standing in as representations of the personal struggles German citizens faced, and that was it.

The Romance: Peter and Anna have a bit of an adolescent crush going on between them, but it takes backseat to everything else, and I was all right with that.

Plot: When the Nazis invade Poland, Peter's parents are killed and his family farm seized by the occupying army. With no relatives, Peter is sent to a Warsaw orphanage, where living conditions are far from ideal. But when German officials come looking for "racially pure" boys to send to Berlin and be rehoused with German families, Peter is excited. With his blond hair, blue eyes, tall and athletic build, and wonderfully well proportioned skull, he's the very essence of the Aryan ideal. Peter sees this as an opportunity to leave the orphanage and someday regain his family farm back, and he eagerly steps into his new life as the adopted son of Professor Franz Kaltenbach - a devoted Nazi doing extensive research into purifying the world of sullied races. As with all German boys his age, Peter joins the Hitler Youth, attends school and excels at athletics, and does everything a perfect German boy ought. Swept away in the thrill of being a part of something big - like restoring Germany's national pride, - Peter isn't bothered by what is truly going on in the world. But he is never able to accept how the Jews and Poles are treated, though he tries desperately to push it to the back of his mind, and as the war drags on and on, and Peter learns the full extent of what the Nazis stand for, he begins to realize that he doesn't agree. With Anna's help, he decides to do something about it. The majority of the plot is spent with Peter's gradual realization - notice the emphasis on gradual. Because that is exactly what it is; he never has a sudden moment of epiphany that changes everything. It's a slow accumulation of knowledge, which slowly leads to him listening to forbidden music, listening to forbidden radio stations (the BBC), which then leads to helping the Reiders hide Jews, which leads to a ton of other revelations. This is, I will relent, realistic, but it also makes for a plot that isn't necessarily exciting or even fast-paced. This is an illustration of what life would be like for a Polish boy deemed German in Berlin - a Polish boy who wasn't willing to accept what he was told to accept. As Peter grows up in WWII-era Berlin, he encounters lots of side characters that tell him of the further horrors of the Nazi party - and how some people feel about it. A real plot doesn't really surface until the last 90 pages, when things start to go horribly wrong for Peter and the Reiders. That isn't to say that The Auslander was boring - I found all of this exploration of Nazi Germany to be utterly fascinating. But some Readers might not.

Believability: The Author has done impeccable research, and it is because of this that I am able to give this book a high rating while complaining about the characters and writing style at the same time. I have absolutely no complaints in this quarter.

Writing Style: Third person, past tense. Occasionally, the chapters switch perspectives between characters, but not very often. The style isn't anything poetic or even descriptive - the Author doesn't do much to color in Peter's world. At times, it feels rather textbookish, which is hard to avoid when addressing so many historical facts. But the information the Author explores is so fascinating that I didn't mind all that much, and I did love how he threw in lots of German words - I love German! It's so much fun to try and pronounce. But he also offers in-text translations, so we Readers aren't left in the dark about what that extremely long word means.

Content: 1 f-word, 2 s-words. Things like sterilization are addressed, though not in detail, and of course there are a few scenes of Gestapo interrogation, but nothing gory.

Conclusion: Once Peter decides that he doesn't agree with the Nazi party, things come crumbling down pretty fast for him - and the Reiders. Where the plot lagged in the beginning, we have a heart-pounding climax that genuinely had me wondering for a moment if Peter really was going to get away - or if the book would end with his death. The Auslander is not a character-driven or even plot-driven book; it's a fact-driven one. The story begins with a information-dump on the Reader and doesn't really let up all that much, as the story spans events from 1941 to 1943. But I found the historical facts so fascinating - and at times downright chilling, like the school curriculum, the "Christmas" decorations, and of course the termination of so-called "undesirables" of society - that I didn't mind the slow plot at all. I like fact-driven books, especially when they are about WWII and the Nazi regime - a time in history that we can never afford to forget.

Recommended Audience: Girl-and-guy read, fifteen-and-up, as well as a great book for adults, perfect for historical fiction fans that prefer a more factual-driven story than drama-driven.

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