August 09, 2015

Uncertain Soldier

by Karen Bass
Pajama Press
288 pp.
Ages 12+
April 2015

Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing the attempt. 
- William Shakespeare, from Measure for Measure, 1.4.

If there’s any message that you can take from the latest young adult book of historical fiction from award-winning author of Graffiti Knight (Pajama Press, 2013) Karen Bass is that it isn’t always easy tell who your friends or enemies are, and even more so during wartime.  And the two young men whose stories are told within Uncertain Soldier, 17-year-old German soldier Erich Hofmeyer and 12-year-old Max Schmidt of Horley, Alberta, find themselves navigating uncertain paths as they attempt to survive as Germans in Canada during World War II.

After his German ship is sunk in the North Atlantic in 1943, Erich is sent to a prisoner-of-war camp near Lethbridge.  As decent as the Canadians seem to be, the camp is run by the German prisoners and specifically high-ranking Nazis.  Because he is reluctant to use his command of the English language to spy for the other German prisoners, Erich is suspected of disloyalty to the Fatherland and repeatedly assaulted in camp.  A consequent hospitalization leads to his removal voluntarily, and that of his bunkmate Johann Nikel, to the logging camp of Henry Lane in northern Alberta.  There, ten Germans deemed not to be pro-Nazi, join Canadian lumberjacks to bring down trees and work the sawmill.  Sadly, but not necessarily surprising, Erich must still endure the prejudice and abuse of other logging camp residents, both German and Canadian, and outsiders,  as well as in the local community of Horley.

Meanwhile, the story’s other protagonist, Max Schmidt, son of a German immigrant farmer, cannot seem to appease his father, who chastizes the boy for not standing up for himself and his heritage, and his peers who bully him with vicious taunts and regular beatings, and locals who look down their noses at his family.  His only respite comes when he runs errands to the logging camp where he is treated kindly by the Lanes and meets Erich with whom he becomes friends.

Though the two young men differ in their ages by five significant years–uncommon for lead characters and friends in youngCanLit–Karen Bass capably creates a friendship based in adversity and support that spans the years, experience and even birthplace.  Max and Erich are very different Germans but their hardships are monumental and the brutality they must endure because of their heritage is beyond wrong.  Each is a prisoner to their fears and the fears of others, challenging their loyalty in every direction.

A book like Uncertain Soldier does not go down easily.  It burns in your throat with the rising bile of injustice and cowardice and the horrors of prejudice inflicted in war and out.  It churns in your gut and then sits like a heavy meal of reality and history.  Sometimes getting beyond that all is tough.  Karen Bass again, as she did in Graffiti Knight, examines an ill-fated part of our history (her author’s note is an especially enlightening and valuable read) and textures it with humanity that makes it a touching story of distressing times.  Uncertain Soldier will blow the historical fiction award juries away with its power.

1 comment:

  1. Great to see books about these little known topics not just getting published, but also getting awards!