CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 36. . . .May 22, 2015
Toronto, ON: Pajama Press, 2015.
287 pp., trade pbk., $14.95.
Interpersonal relations-Juvenile fiction.
World War, 1939-1945-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
"You're a traitor," Lehrmann called after him. "You would join those enemies in a heartbeat. That girl has only to bat her eyelashes.... I'm sure you're eager to lose your virginity."
Lehrmann twisted away when Erich barrelled into him, deflecting him toward the barn wall. He crashed into logs, rolled along them, pushed away. Erich stared at Lehrmann, his breath coming hard and fast...
Erich wiped his aching nose, surprised it wasn't bleeding. "I'm sick of you and your threats. The Lanes have trusted us. Cora has only been polite, even though German bombs killed her relatives." His hands curled into fists. "For you to suggest..."
"See!" Lehrmann's sneer deepened. "Even now you are licking their boots."
The other prisoners arrived to form a half circle around them...Lehrmann raised his voice.
"Those Canadians are filling your head with lies. They even claim Germany is losing."
Erich straightened, spoke firmly. "The Canadians are right. We've lost. It's only fanatics like you who are too blind to see it."
A snarling Hubart lunged from the sidelines but two men grabbed and held him. Lehrmann flushed. "You're a traitor to say that. And anyone who doesn't kill you for saying it is a traitor."
Erich had thrown the gauntlet. Now he had to persist. Fury overrode the fear that usually froze him. "You're the traitor, Lehrmann. And all the Nazis. You dragged us into a war that no one wanted. A war that has destroyed our country."
"The Fuhrer -"
"Lied to us." Erich spat on the ground. "Has lied to us from the start."
Uncertain Soldier is a work of fiction about two boys who face extreme bullying and duplicitous people in a World War II setting. Karen Bass's co-protagonists, Max Schmidt, 12, and Erich Hofmeyer, 17, are brought together through a coincidence of wartime. Though both have fathers, both lack a kind paternal figure at the start of the novel. By the end, they have both encountered several worthy role models and have together forged a fraternal friendship.
During the Second World War, at Britain's request, Canada held 38,000 prisoners of war, mostly Germans, in 40 camps scattered across the country. Camp 133 near Lethbridge, AB, had around 12,000 prisoners, approximately the same number of people as in the nearby town. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, prisoners were permitted to wear their uniforms and insignia. In Bass's novel, the chain of command among the prisoners in Camp 133 depended not only on military rank but also on rank in the Nazi party.
Seaman Erich Hofmeyer, who suffered burns when his ship was torpedoed by the Allies, is sent to Camp 133 after he has healed. He finds camp conditions good, but he is dazed, lonely and worried about family. Although he did not enjoy growing up with his bullying elder brother and dictatorial father, a wealthy industrialist and Nazi party member in Cologne, he still loves them, and he particularly misses his kindly grandparents who had supported the left wing Weimar Republic government in 1920s Germany and left to live in England after it fell. During summers at their Stratford-on-Avon home, Erich learned to speak English with a British accent.
Meanwhile, 12-year-old Max Schultz, living on a farm near the village of Horley in the Peace River district of Alberta, is picked on by bigger schoolmates because he is of German parentage. He was born in Canada after his parents emigrated from Germany in 1929, four years before Hitler came to power in 1933. But the belligerent Richard and his henchmen do not care about these facts and enjoy persecuting Max, verbally and physically. His father, who is angry about the wartime restrictions placed upon German immigrants like himself, has no sympathy for his son and tells Max to stand up for himself.
Erich is troubled when the head Nazi at Camp 133 orders him to use his understanding of English to spy on the guards and gather information. When Erich fails to come up with anything, he is accused of disloyalty to the Fuhrer and to the Reich. Beaten and fearing for his life, Erich confides his dilemma to a doctor who points him in the direction of volunteering to work on a Canadian farm or in a forestry operation. He is sent in the fall of 1943 to Henry Lane's lumber camp near Horley, not far from the Schultz farm. Though logging is hard and living conditions more primitive than in Camp 133, he is happy to be one of 10 German POWs, who, with nine Canadian lumberjacks, make up the camp's workforce.
Henry Lane, the middle-aged logging camp owner, runs his operation with the help of his brother, Alf. Henry's wife, Mildred, who deals with the cooking and laundry, has a helper named Cora, a pretty teenaged girl who lives in their house. The Lanes' son is a prisoner of the Nazis somewhere in Europe, but Henry shows no animosity to the German prisoners. At first, he is suspicious that Erich will try to escape since his fluency in English would allow him to blend into Canadian society, but Erich assures him that he feels safe and is glad to be where he is.
Erich's and Max's paths cross when Max goes to the logging camp to ask Mr. Lane to shoot their pig. The authorities have taken all firearms from German immigrants, leaving Mr. Schultz with no easy way to kill the animal that he needs to butcher for winter meat. Arriving on a Sunday, Max notices the prisoners trying to play soccer with a toque stuffed with snow. When Henry introduces Max to Erich, and Erich says, routinely, "Nice to meet you," Max looks stunned and blurts that no one has ever said that to him before. Erich recognizes in Max the same loneliness and isolation that he feels, and, at the end of their conversation, he suggests that they "bond together." At Christmas, Max gives his soccer ball to Erich (and indirectly to the other POWs) since he has no use for it; he has no friends to play soccer with, and in any case, hockey and baseball are the popular games in Horley.
Bass shows the anti-German sentiment in the Horley area early in the novel by presenting several incidents. In the grocery store line-up, when Mrs. Lane takes Max under her wing and buys his items along with hers, other women in the queue mutter that the Lanes like Germans since they employ POWs. Later, when Max flees Richard and the other bullies and falls in the snow, the constable who pulls him to his feet threatens to arrest both him and his father if he makes any trouble. At the logging camp, two of the Canadian workers, Frank and Chuck, call the prisoners "Jerries" and make other derogatory comments. Cora snubs Erich because her English aunt and uncle were killed during the London Blitz.
Uncertain Soldiers becomes a "who-done-it" when an accident occurs on New Year's Day, 1944. The German POWs decided to work in the bush to make the day go faster. The trees they fell are hauled on a sloop, a "raft with runners," and, as several prisoners are riding on the horse-drawn load, a chain snaps near the right runner, throwing them off and seriously injuring one prisoner. While Alf applies a tourniquet, Erich keeps the man calm. Later, Henry Lane reports that someone deliberately weakened the chain using bolt cutters. Then, Lehrmann, the self-styled leader of the 10 prisoners, orders Erich to use his understanding of English to find out who committed this crime.
Eventually, Erich discovers some hidden bolt cutters and picks up some information about one of the Canadians' whereabouts the day of the "accident." He tells Henry Lane, who is concerned, but urges Erich to wait until they have proof before telling the other POWs. Meanwhile, Lehrmann (see the opening quote) accuses Erich of being unwilling to find the perpetrator.
The pattern of the novel is one of increasing anxiety and brutality until a crisis occurs. The logging camp setting is unique and interesting, but it's a closed environment where there are only so many things that can happen, and the arguments and incidents become somewhat repetitive. Erich starts out scarred from the shipboard fire, and, in the course of the novel, he undergoes so much physical injury that he seems destined to end up disabled. Presumably youth makes him resilient.
As the novel goes on, more logging camp "accidents" occur which endanger the prisoners. When they are invited to a dance, anti-German hostility comes to a head. Meanwhile, as Richard and his friends continues to persecute Max, Max keeps running away from home and hiding in the logging camp barn. When Max undergoes a near-lynching, he plans a prank for revenge. Erich, though sympathetic, warns him against it. Max persists, but the retaliation backfires, and, in terror and shame, he decides to flee the district.
Erich learns from a First Nations man nicknamed "Christmas," a seasonal worker, that Max is heading to his cabin near the Peace River. In violation of the law, Erich joins Christmas on a two day ride to find the boy, a journey that gets Erich and the reader out of the logging camp and into the scenic, rugged landscape. After more danger and violence, Max is reunited with his father, the man who cut the sloop chain is brought to justice, and Lehrmann and Hubart are taken away. Erich, in a hospital bed, is presented with two positive options for his future.
In spite of the above-mentioned solutions, the ending is unsatisfying for Erich's departure means that the friendship between him and Max will end. Bass hints that Max has grown in courage and that his father will be kinder in future, but the bullies haven't gone away. As well, the tenuous attraction between Cora and Max seems unlikely to develop. Teen readers don't need a happily-ever-after ending but might like a flash forward into a peacetime future, perhaps one in which Erich settles in Canada. After World War II ended, 6,000 German POWs asked to remain in Canada. Although all had to be returned to England and eventually to Germany, as the Geneva Convention stipulated, many came to Canada as immigrants and became citizens. An interesting article on this subject is "The Happiest Prisoners" by Graham Chandler in Legion Magazine, March 15, 2012.
Many of the fictional Max's experiences really happened to Hartmann Nagel, a friend of Bass's father whom she consulted in researching Uncertain Soldier. Nagel also provided information about logging camp life in that era. Christmas, who plays a pivotal role in finding Max, is based on a Cree man who worked part-time on Bass's grandfather's farm.
On the whole, Uncertain Soldier is an excellent novel, fascinating for its detail about Canadian rural life in the 1940s, rich in male characters with whom boys can identify, and important in theme - that one should not be too quick to judge others.
For information on Ruth Latta's biographies and historical fiction, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com
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