Disclaimer: Sorry this is a day late! With all the ice and snow and family visiting I was experiencing this weekend, Sunday was gone before I remembered to post this!
I feel like I need to begin this post with an honest comment. I do not like to read World War II literature. I do not like the negative feelings that come from reading books that focus on this piece of history. There have been two reasons why I have read books of this nature: as assigned reading for a class or when CJ chooses it as her book club pick. Honestly, she does this quite often, so my list of WWII reading has grown over the past couple of months. Combining school and book club, I have read The Diary of Anne Frank, Night, The Book Thief, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and now, The Berlin Boxing Club. While I always appreciate the perspective gained from the reading, I always dread the actual reading. I think it is because I am extra sensitive to the plights of fictional and non fictional characters alike, so the books seem to stick with me longer than they should, like a cloud that follows me around.
So, when CJ picked The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow, I had that similar mix of feelings that the book would be good for me, but that I still didn’t want to read it. I read it anyway, and as usual, I am so glad that I did.
This novel follows fourteen year old Karl Stern, a non-practicing Jew growing up in a Germany that was just beginning to marginalize the Jewish world. Karl and his mother both look more aryan, making life for them much easier than it is for his little sister and father, who both have no way to deny their Jewish heritage. While his father is an art dealer, Karl is an aspiring cartoonist, and when at an art show the famous boxer Max Schmeling offers to trade boxing lessons for a painting, Karl sees it as a way to change his life.
Boxing becomes one of the things that keeps Karl sane. He is able to defend himself, but more importantly he is able to blend in. Boxing becomes his life as the world that he has always known crumbles around him. Soon his friendship with Max becomes the only thing that might save him, but where do Max’s loyalties lie?
One of the things that I really loved about this book is that it painted a picture of the pre-concentration camp Germany. I had always wondered exactly how an entire nation decided one day that Jews were so awful that they could be treated like animals and sent to the slaughter. This book shows how it started slowly and simply, and it all came from people sitting back and watching it happen instead of standing up and saying “This is wrong.”
I loved the characters and the way that the father develops throughout the story, but the ending felt rushed and forced. I really needed more. Even just ten more pages would have been better. Either way, I wouldn’t unread the book. This book has been great for some of my students who are more reluctant readers, and with the serious lack of male protagonists in young adult literature, it has made recommending books a lot easier.