The Boy Who Dared

The Boy who Dared

The Boy who Dared

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.

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The Boy who Dared is a coming of age novel by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. I’d had it for a while in my audio books collection and now, having finally listened to it, I wish I had done so long ago.

The book opens in a cell on Death Row, in Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison, where the 17-year-old Helmut Hübener awaits his fate.  Alone and afraid, he remembers moments of his life. He remembers his childhood  – Germany suffering the consequences of The Treaty of Versailles which forces the country to pay heavy reparations after the end of World War I.  Various parties in Germany are fighting for power.  The leader of the Nazi party is gaining popularity. His name is Adolf Hitler – and he makes big promises:  peace in Europe, food to every table, and jobs for all. Hitler’s party wins the election and Hitler is appointed as Chancellor of Germany. Helmut is only three years old then, yet he couldn’t help wondering why his grandparents spoke of Hitler with such fear.  Why would they fear someone who only wants to make Germany better?  But soon the country changes.

A new ideology is being developed.  The Jewish people are declared an enemy of the state and new policies are being implemented under The Third Reich. Young people are being called to help in the rebuilding of the country. Helmut Hübener, now a teenager, hears the call and enters the Hitler Youth program. It doesn’t take him long to notice that the people in Germany are being mislead – that what the Nazi regime presents as patriotism doesn’t coincide with the  real meaning of this term.  The love of and loyalty to one’s country are replaced with hate and fear.

hitler jungenHelmut can’t put up with the injustice and decides to stand up for his beliefs.  He finds a way to listen to foreign radio stations (which is banned by the regime ) on an illegal shortwave radio and begins to write pamphlets based on what he learns, letting the truth be known.  He  fights the  the Nazi propaganda while putting his life at stake.

While listening to the book I got interested in finding out more about this period of history in which the action takes place. I  remembered the lessons I’ve had in school, the movies  and the documentaries I have seen.  But, until now, I haven’t really given much thought about what it must have been like to grow up in a  in a country that is bathed in political and ideological propaganda.

The character of Helmut is portrayed so realistically that I felt a connection with him.  It felt as if I knew him in real life. The story is told by an intriguing mixture of third and first person narration through flashbacks as Helmut, now in prison, remembers his childhood and the  events of his life that led him to that cell.

One of the things that made a big impression on me was the way in which the policy of the Third Reich is outlined:  creating a common enemy, making people be afraid, taking away essential human rights (such as privacy, freedom of speech and truths) under the false pretense that this is all for the good of the Fatherland and its citizens.  I could not help but note the close resemblance to some recent policies utilized by current day decision makers and rulers. It feels to me like History repeats itself over and over again.

The author of the book,  Susan Campbell Bartoletti, has written several non-fiction books focused on growing up in a distinct environment including: Kids on Strike (focusing on child labor in the US during  the 19th and early 20th centuries) and Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow. Her knowledge of the time and the events that took place contributed greatly to the authenticity of the characters and settings in The Boy who Dared.  As a coming of age account of boyhood experiences during WWII, The Boy who Dared is a real marvel of the genre. The story is captivating, entertaining and educational, which is a big accomplishment for any work of art. The audio version of the book I listened to was narrated by David Ackroyd who did an excellent job switching between English and German accents. His narration was done in an emotional and believable manner that further enchanted the impact that the story had on me.

I did research on this book and, to my surprise, I found that a film based on the same true story is currently in pre-production with Haley Joel Osmont playing the role of Helmut. The film is titled Truth & Treason and is scheduled for release in 2012.

In the MTV movies blog, I found an intriguing interview with Haley about his role in the feature movie. “It’s a true story,” Osment explained. “Some teenage members of the Hitler Youth in 1941 were listening to secret BBC broadcasts on the radio. They were picking up the BBC in Hamburg, and they were hearing all these things about the war that obviously the Nazi propaganda machine wasn’t relating to the public, and they ultimately rebelled and started a pamphlet campaign against Hitler.”  {1}

I greatly enjoyed the book and have no hesitation in highly recommending it to the readers of The Boy who Dared is  a coming of age masterpiece – a powerful representation of what it must have been like to grow up in Nazi Germany.

Publisher: Scholastic Books (2008)


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