Tuesday 3 October 2017

Surviving the Fatherland by Annette Oppenlander

Amazon UK £2.25 £12.05
Amazon US $2.93 $14.99
Amazon CA $19.00

Family Drama / Young Adult / Coming of Age 

The story of plucky women, children and older citizens in wartime Britain is well testified in non-fiction, fiction and film. Rationing, conscripted labour, volunteer services such as the WVS, (Women's Voluntary Service) air raids, ‘make do and mend’ are familiar tropes. Flip that experience and go to wartime Germany, especially one depicted from a child’s points of view. This is exactly what Annette Oppenlander does.

Lilly and Günter belong to ordinary families, neither particularly prosperous, both deprived of their fathers in the 1940 call-up. Lilly has the additional problem of an unkind mother who only has time for Lilly’s brother, and a paedophile neighbour who stalks her. Günter at least has his friend Helmut. Both children attempt normality but bombings, food shortages, school closures and continued stress of living under an unreasonable and unpredictable regime disrupt this. Even at the end of war poverty and uncertainty continue into the early 1950s.

Ms Oppenlander’s protagonists are resilient and resourceful; they have to be. The language is direct, descriptive and atmospheric – you are with Günter and Helmut when they are foraging for food and caught by the military – but the author never descends to self-pitying. Described as a coming of age novel it’s also a testament of war as seen through two children’s eyes, rather than dry political history.

The author’s research is ‘haarscharf’ (accurate to a T), but she had direct witnesses.  Occasionally, I was jolted by the maturity of Lilly’s observations. Sometimes she seemed a little too knowing and adult, but it certainly didn’t impact on the story. I noted a few typos here and there and the occasional anachronism, but nothing more than in any other novel.

I would heartily recommend this book as an engrossing and well-researched story with two of the most engaging protagonists I’ve read for a while.

(c) Jessica Brown

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