My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publication Date: October 4th, 2016
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Point of View: 3rd Person & Masculine
Recommended Age: 12+
Genres & Themes: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Germany, Friendship
Noah Keller has a pretty normal life, until one wild afternoon when his parents pick him up from school and head straight for the airport, telling him on the ride that his name isn’t really Noah and he didn’t really just turn eleven in March. And he can’t even ask them why — not because of his Astonishing Stutter, but because asking questions is against the newly instated rules. (Rule Number Two: Don’t talk about serious things indoors, because Rule Number One: They will always be listening). As Noah—now “Jonah Brown”—and his parents head behind the Iron Curtain into East Berlin, the rules and secrets begin to pile up so quickly that he can hardly keep track of the questions bubbling up inside him: Who, exactly, is listening — and why? When did his mother become fluent in so many languages? And what really happened to the parents of his only friend, Cloud-Claudia, the lonely girl who lives downstairs? In an intricately plotted novel full of espionage and intrigue, friendship and family, Anne Nesbet cracks history wide open and gets right to the heart of what it feels like to be an outsider in a world that’s impossible to understand.
This middle grade novel really surprised me.
1989, the Wall is still up in Berlin, dividing East and West Germany. Noah’s parents volunteered to go to East Berlin to do research, obliging Noah to come along.
Anne Nesbet captures the atmosphere I would imagine was present during those oppressive times beautifully. I felt the uncertainty, sorrow and fear Germans probably felt when the Wall was up, keeping them secluded from the world and, in a lot of cases, their families.
It’s a shame this wasn’t narrated in the first person point of view, because then we would truly have been able to see everything through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy. The omniscient narrator is in fact quite present in the story, especially in those ‘‘secret file’’ passages. On the other hand, however, the novel would most likely have been less rich in historical detail had it been narrated by Noah directly.
The friendship between Noah and Claudia is my favourite element of this book. Claudia’s parents are dead, so she’s been told, but she actually believes something else may have happened. Could that have anything to do with her obsession with West Berlin? Noah and Claudia fit so perfectly. They have similar worldviews, despite their distinct pasts.
I also very much appreciated the vulgarized version of what led to the Wall as well as other salient historical facts that link to it. Because of how easily understandable this whole story is, despite its complex subject, I think it’s a great addition to the collection of middle grade historical books.
Unfortunately, I found some elements unrealistic. Noah’s parents, for instance, feel like actors hired to play in a comedy. I don’t mean that they aren’t capable of being serious or believably serious. It’s not that. When they are happy or excited, they are exaggeratedly so, to the point of making me wonder if they are drunk.
Furthermore, Noah is ten. That’s a shock. It’s a shock because of the way he thinks. No ten-year-old boy repeatedly questions his identity or comes up with deep philosophical questions to ponder the way he does. He’s also very quiet, barely ever excited about anything. Or if he is indeed excited, his excitement is so contained it can be overlooked easily. Basically, he feels more like a seventeen-year-old boy than a ten-year-old one.
It’s a serious book with important themes and a surprising ending. It strangely feels like it was written for more of a mature audience (maybe 13-14), despite it being of the middle grade category but, personally, I think maturity was necessary considering the setting, time period and subject.
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