by Amanda West Lewis
Red Deer Press
Remember there are always two sides to the same coin. (pg. 15)
The two-sides-to-the-same coin is a game ten-year-old Peter Gruber plays with his mother in order to see any set of circumstances from different perspectives but the reader would be well advised to heed this advice as well. It’s very easy to sit back in the comfort of our lives today, wherever they may be, in the hindsight of World War II as a global entity. It’s even easier to judge those involved in the war when we have countless sources of information about how it played out. But we shouldn’t do so when reading The Pact by Amanda West Lewis because Peter Gruber’s story offers an opportunity to witness the then and there, starting in Hamburg Germany in 1939, when information was filtered and limited and reality was what you faced daily.
Although Peter is without a father and adept at black market trading of goods he scavenges at the port of Hamburg, he is probably a typical ten-year-old. He goes to school (or he did until an accident that has him falling in the water leads to a case of diptheria and an extended hospital stay); he has his friends, Gunter and Eugene, who attend Hort, the youth organization, together; he has some family, notably his Tante Elsa and cousin Gerta who live in the country at Eutin; and he has hobbies like black-market trading and reading–his favourite is the western The Treasure of Nugget Mountain, though he gets into the Russian classics of Tolstoy, Chekhov and others after his hospital stay. But Germany’s economy is in ruins after World War I and most Germans are happy to follow Chancellor Hitler’s directives to be dutiful and responsible to make Germany strong again.
In the fall of 1939, Peter begins Gymnasium, the elite school for privileged boys such as Hermann Weber, Peter’s trading nemesis and a bully, with friends Gunter Schmidt and Otto Brandt, and participating in Jungvolk, the youth organization for boys of ages 10-14 that is all about training to fight. But conflict with Poland and Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany ramps up fears and patriotism, affecting work, food, education, and spirit. Amidst lessons of ethnology of the German people and daily reminders that the boys are the future of Germany as well as celebrating the surrender of countries such as Denmark, Norway and Belgium, Peter is sometimes perplexed by what he previously thought or read in light of new and propagandist information (though he does not know it to be so).
With frequent air raids and bombings through 1940, Peter and his Gymnasium cohorts are evacuated as part of the Kinderlandverschickung south to Neumarkt where they are schooled and trained in all things Nazi, made to feel pride for the Party’s accomplishments, and reassured that the war would soon be over.
But the war is not soon over and Peter and his friends hear little news except that Britain is close to surrendering and on the brink of defeat. After returning to Hamburg in 1941, Peter is whisked away to his aunt’s for the summer. Troops marching by share news of work camps where prisoners ("He wasn't sure where all of the prisoner were coming from, though."; pg. 136-7) work to support Germany’s economy and hears news of the conflict with the Soviet Union. Upon his return to Hamburg, though, pamphlets encouraging Germans to overthrow Hitler begin to surface and the BBC radio broadcasts his mother enjoys, illegally, have Peter revisiting what he hears and knows and fears.
Peter knew the British were lying. But the broadcasts gave him this odd sense of huge events taking place somewhere else, things he wasn’t supposed to know about. He tried not to think about it. (pg. 138)The Pact is an involved and complex story, not unlike the war itself, and Peter’s experiences from 1939 through 1945 are no less so. As a student of Gymnasium and a part of Jungvolk and then Hitlerjugend when he turns 14, Peter is shunted between home to safer evacuation locations in Neumarkt, Germany and Bistriz, Hungary and back to a demolished Hamburg, with forays to his aunt’s country home. He begins to see that all he has lived through and experienced is “a life he now knew he didn’t want any part of.” (pg. 210)
“…we’re going to lose this damn war, and then it will be just like the last time, only worse. They’ll take away our land; they’ll take away our food. And this time, we’ll deserve it. We’ll deserve to be punished.” (pg. 218)And even though he knows this, Peter is compelled to report to the Hitlerjugend office to avoid being deemed a deserter and begins apprenticing at an airplane engine factory in Klockner. Still he is not free, ultimately commanded to attend a training camp in Denmark in November of 1944, a camp where the hundreds of young men are guarded by armed soldiers with dogs and forced to pledge allegiance to the Führer. There is so much story to tell–hence my lengthy review–and yet Amanda West Lewis grips the reader with each scene, discussion, piece of propaganda, excursion, lesson, danger and thought that Peter faces and endures. The Pact, which is based on a true story (the author's note and interview at the conclusion of the book reveal everything), will transfix readers with the story of war from a rare perspective, that of a child growing up in Germany, for whom home is everything, even if not everything is as it seems or should be.
Take advantage of upcoming book launches for The Pact in Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa and Amanda West Lewis' reading at this weekend's Eden Mills Writers' Festival to hear from the author herself about this extraordinary, extraordinary story of historical fiction that will both enlighten and engross.