To The Boy in Berlin – Elizabeth Honey and Heike Brandt

To the Boy in Berlin

Alright – so I have to admit that I am a little bit of a ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ junkie.  I love historical stuff, especially primary source material – diaries, ships lists, old letters, photos, census records…so the design of the book, incorporating these bits and pieces really appealed to me. I  think it probably deserved to win the APA Best Designed prize.

I also love a bit of a puzzle – a good mystery to unfold.  So long as there are enough clues hanging around for me to be able to reasonably ‘solve’ it.  All those years of Enid Blyton set a bit of a reading dietary requirement (My terrible reading secret is that I enjoy a good Kathy Reichs – Tempe Brennan novel peppered in amongst the other stuff).

And, having been intrigued by time travel novels, of a very specific kind, since I was very young (Charlotte Sometimes, Tom’s Midnight Garden, A Stitch in Time, The Ghosts)  I guess maybe I thought this story was going to be something it wasn’t…not that it promised that – I just presumed…

HOWEVER, two out of three ain’t bad…and nor is this book.  Basic plot summary:  Henni Octon (main character, 13yr old Australian girl in 7th grade) is on holiday when she discovers Leopold Schmidt.  A German boy who was 13 yrs old in 1914.  His height was recorded on the kitchen door frame, and his name is in several German books.  But there is a mystery.  In 1915 the Schmidts suddenly left Cauldron Bay, and nobody could (or would) say why.  This piques Henni’s curiosity enough for her to leave a note in one the boxes of German games and books the family had discovered.  In an odd coincidence the letter is discovered by the uncle of a present day Leo Schmidt, living in Berlin.

Who, also coincidentally, is 13 years old.  Coincidentally, Leo’s mother is called Bettina, as was Leopold’s, and Leo’s father is a carpenter, as was Leopold’s.  Hmmmm…when does coincidence become lazy/poor plot structure?  Although, the character of Leo did take the time to say that he wouldn’t believe that coincidence if he read it in a book (which reminded me of a scene in The Kite Runner, strangely enough), this just didn’t ring true and seemed unnecessary to the story, in the end…  (One star gone – I just couldn’t buy it.  Mysterious, really, when I can buy time travel…if the plot stands up to it).  So, anyway, Henni and Leo begin communicating via email.

And all of my teacher/parent instincts kick in to say, ‘what are you doing, Henni? and Henni’s parents…this guy could be anyone!!!!  I waited for parents/teachers/anyone to remind her that this is really unsafe cyber behaviour, and it just didn’t happen. (Another half star down…Books don’t need to be morality tales, or netiquette safety handbooks, but this is blatantly unsafe behaviour and there is no consequence at all…not even a severe discussion with the teacher)

But getting the voice for Leo right was great.  Somehow, even in English, he had a German accent.  I felt that the grammatical errors were consistent and appropriate…not over done.  His voice was weirdly adult, but that was kind of OK, since he seemed a formal kind of kid.  I would have liked the characters to have been at least a year older to really be convinced of their age.  But, again, plot devices got in the way, I suspect.  Leo needed to be under 14 for various plot driven reasons.  He also really presented some interesting moral dilemmas and modern understandings of racial disharmony and tensions, and modern Germany – often neglected by those who get embroiled in reading about WW2.

So, as to the last half star, the star that took this book from maybe a four – nearly – to absolutely a three.  The emails.  For a story of the complexity that this one has, the denouement needs to be spectacularly wrought.  The build up was fantastic..the tension was developed, the clues were dropped (although not as explored as I would have liked – eg I really wanted a closer look at that rocking horse), and the links were made.  Now for the unravelling…

But here, the writers hit a spectacular road block.  How to convey the climax of the story through the emails of a 13 year old girl, writing to a 13 year old boy, and remain true to her voice.  I won’t reveal any plot, and I think the content of it was great.  I just didn’t like the telling.  I felt cheated, if I am honest.  I wondered if perhaps, now, the main character needs to write another book.  This one could be her as an adult, writing a novel, based on the stuff that happened when she was thirteen.  The novel could have two voices – hers and Leopold’s.  Or, maybe, Leo and Leopold.  So perhaps it would have to be Leo, grown up, writing the story.  Hmmm…not sure.

This book is worth a read.  Particularly if you enjoy a bit of a mystery, a bit of history, and a journal/ letter style of novel.  I haven’t read Elizabeth Honey’s other books, but I am tempted to at least give The Ballad of Cauldron Bay a go, because I did enjoy Henni as a character.

This book gets a 3/5 star rating from me.

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Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+

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