INITIALLY one is tempted to view this novel with its story of a young boy and a Nazi theme as a regurgitation of Boyne’s successful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
It’s an oft repeated motif that could appear tiresome, a field that has been tilled many times before. One can imagine a publisher whispering in the author’s ear: Give them more of the same, of a tried and tested formula.
But this story stands on its own, and the main character is far less naïve than the boy in the previous work. Here we are introduced to the seven-year-old Pierrot, who was brought up half French in Paris, and whose innocence is corrupted fast as he grows into the Germanic Pieter, connecting to the other side of his heritage.
In fairness, the author should be commended for his courage in risking the loss of readers for delineating a protagonist who grows in unpleasantness.
The details of a boy’s remembrance are credible: dropping water balloons from a top window, or his war-ravished father mimicking the sound of a horse as he carried him on his shoulders, or showing his love for his son by giving him his own ice cream when the son’s fell to the ground.
The culinary details of the time are authentic too: Madame Abrahams made the best gefilte and latkes, and there are references to limburgers and stollen.
But the happy memories are outweighed by the tragic as Pierrot’s father is killed beneath the wheels of a train and his mother dies of tuberculosis. The boy is eventually dispatched, after a spell in an orphanage, to be indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth.
Equally poignant is the airbrushing out of his memory of his deaf friend Anshel because he was a Jew. There are cameo roles of real historical figures such as the Duke of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, and Eva Braun.
Hitler has a more meaty part and is largely convincing, although his droning on about ‘pure breeds’ inclines towards the soapbox.
And sometimes the dialogue can appear stilted, more like historical summaries of events rather than real interpersonal interactions. For example when the duke was asked by Hitler did he regret abdicating his throne, he replied: “Couldn’t do it, you see. Not without the help and support of the woman I love. Said so as much in my farewell speech.”
And what is not convincing, and something the reader has to buy into, is the idea of a seven year old reading Mein Kampf and later, The Magic Mountain, and sometimes speaking in a manner beyond his years.
The transformative power of a uniform is well presented as Pierrot/Pieter is decked out in his Deutsches Jungvolk outfit, and the devastating symbolism of clothes such as the yarmulke is powerfully rendered.
The writing is simple and direct, ideal for a young reader with only rare lapses into sloppiness, as when the boy opens the brown parcel containing his uniform: ‘The strings came loose, the brown paper parted and Pierrot reached inside to remove what lay inside. Inside was a pair of black short trousers…’
The ending is jolting, the epiphany on the wrongness of the boy’s ways too brief, and the sudden leap from third to first person as Anshel reappears as the writer ready to write Pierrot’s story, is jarring.
But the book for the most part contains the best quality in children’s stories, where one looks forward with growing anticipation for the unfolding of each new chapter, affording an interesting way for a child to learn history.
James Lawless is an award winning poet and novelist. www.jameslawless.net
The Boy at the Top of the Mountain
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