CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 12 . . . . February 2, 2007
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2007.
128 pp., pbk., $9.95.
Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
"I ran into my room, shut the door and curled up on my bed. I was shaking and couldn't stop. Everything was repeating itself! It couldn't be happening. We were supposed to be safe here. It wasn't fair! Why couldn't we be safe anywhere? Why?...
It was only the next morning when I awoke to that awful sound - someone pounding on our door. They were here. I knew it. I had tried to tell Father. But he wouldn't listen. And now it would be too late. They'd take us all away…"
Ben Friedman is a typical young teenage boy who joins the track team and learns to play chess at school, who has to deal with bullying by some tough kids in his class, and who has trouble getting along with a father who just never seems to make the right decisions. But Ben's story begins in 1941 as a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany who makes his escape to Seattle with only his immediate family. Behind, he leaves his grandparents and friends to suffer the consequences of the Nazi regime. To his horror, the US and Canada seem to offer less protection that he had imagined. The front window of his house is smashed, and a banner appears which says 'Germans go home.' Ben's best friend, John, is a Japanese boy who is forced to move with his family to an internment camp. Ben wonders if anyone, anywhere, is safe from discrimination and even questions just who is losing his sanity: "I pushed aside any feeling of guilt about him and especially Mother. And I stopped asking myself if I was going overboard, going crazy. I decided everyone else was" (p. 74). After all, Ben is now "an American," albeit an American Jew of German descent, so he should be safe.
Carol Matas provides enough historical background to keep this novel accurate, but it is a coming-of-age novel set in a particular era rather than a historical text with a fictional veneer. Her characters are realistic and true to the times in which they live. The plot moves along quickly with each page adding more excitement and adventure. Ben deals with school bullies and beatings as the target of racist sentiment. At one point, he even chooses the option of running hundreds of miles away from home in hopes of finding a safe haven. Events swirl around him, and he feels out of control, caught in the whirlwind that was the 1940s.
The Whirlwind is an excellent example of holocaust literature for young adults and could lead to a wide variety of classroom discussions as it deals not only with the horrors of World War II as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy but also with the larger questions of human rights, discrimination and the overwhelming question of whether such events are happening or might happen again in our modern society. Both Jewish and Japanese cultures are introduced. As well, Matas debates religion and the role of a God who would 'allow' such evil to exist. As a subplot, Ben and his father translate the book of Job and so deal with religious/philosophical questions such as, "He'd be better off not making innocent people who are just going to suffer. He makes the rules. Why can't He change them?" (p. 67).
Whether read only as an action/adventure novel or as a gateway to learning about a boy's first-hand experiences in World War II and the questions this raises, The Whirlwind is another excellent book by Carol Matas, an internationally acclaimed author of some 35 titles for children and young adults.
Ann Ketcheson, who lives in Ottawa, ON, is a former teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French.
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