July 26, 2013

Graffiti Knight

by Karen Bass
Pajama Press
288 pp.
Ages 12+
August, 2013

Many books of historical fiction focus on the atrocities and hardships of war time but few examine the aftermath of war, especially for civilians in the defeated countries.  Children's fiction and non-fiction of life in Nazi Germany abound, particularly for those who were victimized by the Nazis.  But, after Germany's surrender in 1945, its lands were divided between four occupation zones administered by the British, Americans, French and Soviets, as well as having certain lands inhabited by Germans recovered by Poland and Czechoslovakia. This is the story of Wilhelm Tauber and his family and friends as they endure life in the town of Leipzig in the Soviet-controlled sector of Germany.

Wilhelm, who prefers to be called Wilm, as he perennially tells his father, has much that angers him about Leipzig's current circumstances.  His father, who returned from war without one leg, is bitter about his loss and limited opportunities, and is regularly antagonistic to Wilm. His mother works as much as she can to help provide for the family.  His older sister, Anneliese, spends much of her time in her room, except when she goes to work, dressed in boy's clothing.  His friend, Georg, whose father died in the war, is essentially starving.  His friend, Karl, has a father who was taken to a POW camp but he knows nothing else of his fate.  And school is tedium for Wilm, doing well in math but only when applicable to real life.  But the harassment of the Schupos, the German police under Soviet control, and the Soviets themselves, have created a prison for all in Leipzig, restricting their movements, their food, their opinions–all their freedoms–and evoking fear, compliance and silence.  But nothing can compare to the anger Wilm experiences when he learns that Anneliese was raped by four Soviet soldiers at the train station where she went to meet her boyfriend, Ernst Weber, who promptly dropped her because she was no longer "untouched".

The game that Wilm, Karl and Georg regularly played, spying on the Schupos, pretending to be behind enemy lines and collecting intelligence for the Americans, becomes more real after Wilm begins taking chances to humiliate the Schupos and the Soviets, starting with the slashing of tires on several Soviet vans.  An older man, Otto Steinhauer, an engineer contracted to inspect bridges, intercedes when Karl and Wilm begin fighting over Wilm's negligence.  Soon Otto becomes a mentor to Wilm teaching him about bridges, math and engineering, as well as talking with him about Wilm's father, dealing with those in authority, and trust.

With the continued hostilities from the Soviets and the Schupos, including that of Anneliese's ex-boyfriend, Ernst, now a Schupo, Wilm feels compelled to escalate his attacks, becoming known as the Marionette Wolverine for the stickman puppet graffiti he leaves as his mark. But Wilm's resolve to get an innocent Georg released from jail has him questioning his own motives and actions, particularly after a final explosive act forces him to flee Leipzig, with friends and family in tow.  What begins as civil disobedience in search of justice becomes a harrowing escape, jeopardizing the lives of all for whom he cares.

Karen Bass' thorough research, as she describes in her Historical Notes at the back of the book, provides the authentic background for Graffiti Knight, challenging all that readers might think they know about Nazi Germany and its aftermath.  While all will see the Nazis as the criminals to humanity, we often forget that for others, the Soviets were just as barbaric to their victims, using some different means to oppress.  By seeing Leipzig and other parts of Germany through the eyes of a young man of sixteen, who lives through World War II but experiences further injustice in its aftermath, when so many were celebrating victory, Karen Bass provides enlightenment via a new perspective.  Heroes are not just made in war.  Courage and compassion, the virtues of heroes anywhere and anytime, can make a knight out of anyone, even Wilm.

1 comment:

  1. This looks like a very good book. It is always good to see more than one side to every situation. I will put it on my TBR list.