There are times when a writer puts words down with such power that a reader can’t turn away and must read them.
That’s the kind of book Susan Campbell Bartoletti has written in The Boy Who Dared, a novel based on the true story of Helmuth Hubener, a German schoolboy who was a member of the Hitler Youth before daring to defy Nazism’s oppressive code of uniformity.
Bartoletti came across Helmuth while writing her Newbery honor book, Hitler Youth: Growing Up In Hitler’s Shadows, and based The Boy Who Dared on her extensive research into Helmuth’s life in an attempt to understand what truly happened to inspire him to rebel against the norm and to give his life for the things that he felt were precious in the world—an individual’s right to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of information, and the right to choose his own friends.
In a series of flashbacks, Bartoletti tells Helmuth’s story from prison, moving the reader deftly from present to past and back again, transporting the reader from Helmuth’s cell to his life before prison and the sequence of events that led to his arrest and death sentence for treason.
Here’s the opening scene:
It’s morning. Soft gray light slips over the tall redbrick wall. It stretches across the exercise yard and reaches through the high, barred windows. In a cell on the ground floor, the light shifts dark shapes into a small stool, a scrawny table, and a bed made of wooden boards with no mattress or blanket. On that bed, a thin, huddled figure, Helmuth, a boy of seventeen, lies awake. Shivering. Trembling.
It’s a Tuesday.
The executioner works on Tuesdays.
With the power of her words, Bartoletti draws us firmly into Helmuth’s cell, into his small world, into the body of the frightened seventeen-year-old boy who is lying awake, shivering and trembling, waiting for the sound of the executioner’s keys to reach him.
With the same skill and power, Bartoletti draws us into Helmuth’s world to show how his frustration and anger rise in the face of ongoing Nazi rules forbidding Germans to live the ordinary lives that they enjoyed before Hitler’s rise to power.
Helmuth’s temper flares. “The Fuhrer forbids everything,” he says angrily.
Helmuth holds his index finger to his upper lip, mocking Hitler’s toothbrush mustache, and goose-steps across the flat. “Swing music. Verboten,” he says. “Jitterbug dancing. Verboten. Reading un-German books. Singing un-German songs. Staying out past the ten o’clock curfew. Criticizing Adolf Hitler or the war. Verboten. Verboten. Verboten.”
Gerhard grabs his brothers hand, grips it, iron-fisted. “Stop that,” he whispers, shocked. “Are you a fool? Do you want the neighbors to hear?”
Power strokes: words that demand that you read them. How does Bartoletti achieve such power in her work?
Here’s another scene from Helmuth’s prison cell:
Noon. The small window in the cell door slides open again. A bowl of watery cabbage soup is shoved through. The soup is possible to eat if he doesn’t stop to smell it, doesn’t stop to think about his grandmother’s soup, her thick beef-and-barley soup, and the crusty bread to sop up the hearty broth.
He longs for a letter. He’d surely trade soup for a letter. He misses his family terribly, so terribly he aches. He knows he has caused them much sorrow, much hardship. Especially Gerhard. That he regrets, and only that.
He gulps the thin soup.
And in the following example she offers readers the moment when Helmuth realizes that if no one acts to stop the Nazis, the injustice and brutality will only continue:
That night as soon as the supper dishes are cleared, and Oma and Opa are safely in bed, Helmuth sets out the typewriter. He inserts carbon paper into the carriage and rolls it into place. Brother Worbs, his toothless gums and his gnarled fingers; soldiers dying in Russia; his grandparents and neighbors hunkered in air-raid shelters as bombs fall; burned-out Jewish businesses and synagogues; the lies, deception—he can’t shake the images, his anger. He must be willing to give up safety and comfort for freedom. That’s what Heinrich Mann said.
Helmuth’s fingers fly over the keys, and by midnight he has a stack of new leaflets. He expects to feel satisfied but doesn’t.
The Nazis can’t get away with these things. The world has gone mad! It’s time to think bigger, to escalate the pamphlet campaign, to enlarge his circle so that more Germans learn the truth. There’s no time to lose. What will the Nazis do next if no one stops them now?
If you want to learn how to invest your words and stories with power, read Bartoletti’s The Boy Who Dared. It’s a book that you’ll remember for a long, long time.
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