My Brother’s Shadow
Written by Monika Schröder
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011, 211pp.
It’s 1918 and Moritz, a disillusioned sixteen-year-old, struggles with his loyalty to his brother and the memory of his father as he watches the protesters on the streets of Berlin. These protesters fight for justice for the civilian population, determined to end Germany’s involvement in World War I. With little money for medicine or meat, Moritz’s mother was unable to save his little sister who lost her life to a respiratory infection. His older brother Hans is fighting on the front while his mother and sister risk indictment for treason and imprisonment for their involvement with the social democrats. Moritz is coming of age in a confusing time in history.
When his print shop boss gives Moritz the opportunity to write articles for Daily Berliner, this young man gets a close-up view of the changing political landscape in the German capital. As a reporter, he witnesses clandestine meetings, demonstrations, and arrests. He learns that his mother is not just involved with the social democrats; she is one of their leaders. While this work repeatedly calls his worldview into question, it isn’t until Hans returns home, severely wounded, bitter, and angry that Moritz begins to question the Kaiser and the wisdom of the war.
It is through Hans’s war stories and nightmares that Moritz learns what war is really like. Moritz begins by feeling sympathy for his brother’s loss of an eye and part of an arm that will keep him from returning to practicing his skill as a watchmaker. But Hans’s hatred of enemies within and without and his scapegoating of Jews frighten Moritz. He sees that the future his older brother envisions for Germany will involve more hatred and yet more loss.
Along the way, Moritz gets involved with a street gang and ends up snitching on them to save a friend. He fights off Hans when his brother pulls a revolver on him. Moritz also meets Rebecca and falls in love with her. He learns she works for a lawyer, a member of Parliament, who later helps Moritz when his mother is arrested. When Moritz learns that Rebecca is Jewish and is also involved with the social democrats, the young man’s fears for the future of Germany come into even sharper focus.
As a former classroom teacher and school librarian, author Monika Schröder knows that readers, especially boys, have a hunger for reading about war. While there are no battle scenes in My Brother’s Shadow, the atrocities of war are vivid in young Moritz’s imagination and in the stories his brother Hans tells when he returns from the front, maimed and embittered. Also the constant struggle by civilians for food, heat, and safety show a tangible side of war. And perhaps most importantly, the wars within Moritz himself for who and what to believe make an impact on readers’ responses to this novel.
Author Monika Schröder grew up in Germany. Through her family’s history, she has an insider’s knowledge of the toll that frequent political transitions and upheaval can take on the civilian population who bear the brunt of their leaders’ decisions. In her research for this book, Ms. Schröder consulted many primary source documents, especially newspapers, to gain insights not only into the facts of World War I as presented to the German people, but also into the social and cultural impact of the war on average Germans. One of her compelling discoveries was the integral role of German women in the social democratic movement which followed World War I. My Brother’s Shadow serves as a prequel to Ms. Schröder’s first published novel, Dog in the Wood (2009), which is set in Germany during World War II.
This middle grade novel can be paired with other international books about the effects of war and political turmoil on children and youth. Eight-year-old Lucky and his ten-year-old sister Nopi who were kidnapped to serve as child soldiers tell their story in Son of a Gun by Anne de Graaf (2012). In their “kill or be killed” reality, readers see the Liberian civil war through the eyes of these two children and their constant fears for their lives even after escaping the grips of their captors. In Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin (2011), ten-year-old Sasha eagerly anticipates his induction into the Soviet Young Pioneers. When his “good Communist” father is arrested the night before the ceremony, Sasha, disillusioned, spends two days in emotional turmoil, and is no longer willing to buy into the party line. In Between Shades of Gray author Ruta Sepetys (2011) details the inhumane conditions in which forced labor camp prisoners struggle after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania. The story is told from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Lina who uses her sweet memories of normal life and her drawings for the father from whom she has been separated to survive unimaginable deprivation while imprisoned with her mother and younger brother in Siberia.
These books can expand readers’ understanding of the emotional and physical toll that repressive regimes and war take on youth and their families. Reading and responding to My Brother’s Shadow and these additional texts can help readers access a non-U.S. worldview of the events depicted. International novels such as these create the possibility for empathy and a deeper understanding of the negative consequences of war and tyranny on all people, especially, impressionable youth who are developing their identities during times of great political upheaval and injustice.
Judi Moreillon, School of Library and Information Studies, Texas Woman’s University, Denton, Texas