Saturday, September 4, 2010
Review of Ashes by Kathryn Lasky
There are plenty of books about the Holocaust, for all ages and from all points of view. In Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil, this is problematic for the main character, a writer named Henry, because he has written what he feels is a fresh allegorical look at the Holocaust, only to realize (thanks to his editors) that in fact he has covered the same ground in the same way as countless others.
This is the challenge for any writer covering this intense, fraught, and oft-described subject. Ashes meets it by presenting the story from the point of view of 13-year-old Gaby, who lives with her upper-middle class family in 1932 Berlin. Gaby isn't Jewish, but her family is disgusted and alarmed by the fascist element - most notably Hitler's SS and SA troups - that seems to be gaining power and influence in Germany.
Gaby is a big reader, and so a huge book burning staged by the Nazis is a powerful and horrifying event for her. However, her antennae go up long before this, as the tone of her society changes in ways small and large, banal and menacing. We often ask "How could regular people have allowed such horrors to happen?" and this book will give readers a glimpse at how this might have become possible.
What if the Tea Party folks managed to come to power, along with those who have become stridently anti-Muslim? We have some powerful laws and documents to protect our freedom in the US, but if those laws became eroded, there is a pretty scary fringe element that would be happy to rush in and take over. Not that the US is anything as volatile or horrific as 1930s Germany - but what books like Ashes show us is that we always need to be on our guard against hatred and irrationality.
I sensed bits and pieces of many different books and movies about this time period in Ashes. There is a boyfriend-turned-Nazi, a la "The Sound of Music," and a scene in which a frighteningly blond youth sings a stirring patriotic song in a Biergarten is very similar to a scene in "Cabaret." It's Gaby's thoughtful reactions to the people and events around her that form the core of this novel, so a bit of retreading isn't so terrible.
Ashes is well-written (from the clear-eyed, if occasionally appropriately histrionic point of view of teenaged Gaby), and if it isn't strikingly unique, that's fine. The Holocaust is one of those topics we need to keep thinking, talking, and reading about, in order to ensure that it never happens again.
Ages 11 to 14