CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 15. . . .December 11, 2009
Summer of Fire.
Regina, SK: Coteau Books, 2009.
267 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Runaway teenagers-Juvenile fiction.
Worls War, 1939-1945-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 8-10 / Ages 13-15.
Review by Joan Marshall.
He rubbed his chin then leaned forward and rested forearms on his knees. "Don't make me out to be a saint, Del. This is the third time in our marriage that Cassandra has broken down. It seems to happen when her plans shatter and she feels she's failed. Instant depression. It's scary as hell, even if it only lasts a few days. I almost left her the last time it happened. I need you to behave. That's all there is to it."
"Good. And you know that the smell of alcohol on your breath will likely set her off."
So he'd finally decided to mention those beers she'd had the other day. He might be right, but he didn't realize how much "tha's all there is to it" had set Del's nerves on edge. She studied him. He looked really tired. His students probably wondered why he wasn't so handsome today. "I'll follow the rule Cass put in the contract. I won't take part in any underage drinking."
Mathias flopped back and sank down. "Scheisse. I wish Felix hadn't told you the legal age for beer and wine is sixteen."
Del smirked. "No underage drinking. That's what Cass said."
"Your parents warned us you like pushing limits. Fine. You think you're getting away with something by drinking a few beers here and there. Just remember: you show up in this house drunk, even once, and I'll be the one locking you in your room."
"After I puke on your shoes?"
"No, after you clean up your own puke." Mathias fetched his briefcase. He set a cellphone and a bank card on the table. "We'll have to go to the train station to get your transit pass because they take your picture. Here's your freedom, Del. It's yours to keep..." He stood. "Or lose."
Sixteen-year-old Del's busy parents, preoccupied with trying to save their marriage, have sent her from Edmonton to spend the summer with her older sister Cassandra and her husband Mathias in Hamburg, Germany, hoping also to separate Del from some questionable friends and dangerous activities. Although feeling unloved and resentful, Del does agree to help her sister's landlord, Luise, by editing a story Luise has written in English about her grandmother Garda's horrifying World War II experiences. This story, in diary entries, alternates with Del's experiences in Hamburg as she chafes against her sister's rules, tries to find friends, and falls in love with Felix, Luise's nephew.
In the diary entries, Garda is raped by an acquaintance, rejected by her pro-Nazi mother and separated from her gentle father to save face when she becomes pregnant. Her mother sends her from Heidelburg to Hamburg to stay with a couple who have agreed to adopt the child. She escapes from them to a friend on the night Hamburg is destroyed by Allied bombers, and she gives birth to her daughter Hilde as the city burns around her. After the war, she marries a sympathetic German submarine radioman.
Del is an irritating character, crabby, self-centred, confrontational, a compulsive risk-taker who cannot control her explosive anger. Her actions appear entirely too extreme for a 16-year-old (almost like temper tantrums) and seem to be superficially based on her parents' supposed lack of attention and love for her. She seems unable to take into account how the adults around her feel. She tries to bite her tongue, but her anger flares up at the least provocation, leading her to run away to Amsterdam and into real danger from which she is rescued by a kindly security guard solely because she is a Canadian. Frightened by her experience and by Mathias' worry over Cassandra's health, Del apologizes, and the two sisters begin to rebuild their relationship. This change of character seems too sudden and at odds with Del's defiance.
Mathias, Luise and Felix are all well-drawn characters, interesting and thoughtful. Felix, dealing the same parental coldness as is Del, seems much more realistic and three dimensional as a character. Cassandra's depression and anxiety are very real, yet Del doesn't seem to understand this, preferring to believe that her sister and husband are out to put her in prison and control her every movement out of spite.
The city Hamburg comes alive as Del learns to manage the trains and as both she and Garda observe the beautiful lakes and churches.
However, it is the character of Garda that is truly remarkable. A lively "good" girl, she is betrayed by her friends and by her mother just when she needs them most. She faces her situation bravely in spite of her grief, and learns to choose joy over anger. Her conversations with her father and her observations about the Nazi regime demonstrate clearly the position of everyday, bewildered and tired Germans, and will be surprising to most Canadian teens as, after all, history is written mainly by the victors, and often the German people have been all tarnished with the Nazi brush. In fact, Del's story pales and seems superfluous beside Garda's true heroism, which could have better been published as amazingly gripping historical fiction in its own right. Although the author tries valiantly to connect Del's problems with Garda's, the reader tends to want to skip over the present day story, which seems trivial, to the compelling war story.
Middle teens who are interested in World War II will enjoy Summer of Fire.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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