Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: The Berlin Boxing Club

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
I do not like boxing, but I enjoy World War II stories and I liked the movie Cinderella Man, which is about boxing, so I thought I’d give The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow a try ($11.91; HarperTeen; April 26, 2011).

The historical novel is a coming-of-age story about fourteen-year-old Karl Stern, a blond, blue-eyed Jewish boy living in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power who likes to draw cartoons. Karl’s father is an art dealer whose friendship with the World Champion of Boxing Max Schmeling results in boxing lessons for Karl, who has suffered a beating at the hands of some Hitler Youth at school. While boxing is important to the plot, it isn’t necessary to appreciate boxing in order to understand the book.

The plot and characters are well-developed, and the stories concerning the real-life boxers, such as Schmeling, seem well-researched. At the beginning, I liked the way in which Karl treats his sister and the funny cartoons he draws, but as the book progresses, I grew to dislike the protagonist Karl, which made me dislike the book overall. Karl is a self-absorbed boy whose Aryan looks save him from much of the hardships Jews suffered at that time. He seems almost completely oblivious to the sufferings of others.

For example, when Karl and another Jewish boy, Benjamin, are running from thugs at school, Benjamin falls behind, which results in a gang beating. Even though Benjamin calls for help—and Karl has been training as a boxer with men for almost three years!—Karl refuses to stop and help him. He, instead, runs away and justifies his actions by saying he would have simply been beaten as well. That may be true, but it does not endear him to the reader. He is ashamed of his sister’s “Jewish looks,” as he calls them, and says that he does not like Jews in general. In summary, Karl posses few admirable qualities—he is self-centered, cowardly, and quick to anger. The reader wants a noble protagonist. The protagonist can have flaws, but overall he should be praiseworthy. Karl isn’t.

His parents are worse. His mother is constantly depressed and useless to her family. His father is emotionally distant. Aside from Karl’s sister Hildy, it is difficult to find anyone in the story to like. Other parts of the book bothered me as well. First, there is a scene where Karl drinks excessive amounts of beer to the point of passing out. This might be realistic for the time and European children tend to have lower drinking ages and cultural expectations than Americans, but I don’t think it sets a good example, even if Karl regrets it. Moreover, it seems downright moronic in light of the potential risks for Jews at the time.

Secondly, Karl’s cartoons become bizarre as the book progresses. He draws a new cartoon “hero” called “The Mongrel” who comes from a Nazi experiment: “We will mix the blood of all the mongrel races—Jew, Gypsy, Negro, Indian, and Chinese—and perform a transfusion on a baby and create a monster to prove their ultimate inferiority” (Sharenow 315). While the cartoon shows the “experiment failing” as the baby gets “stronger and far more intelligent than a normal baby,” which advocates that the so-called “Mongrel” races are not to be despised but admired, the whole cartoon rubs me the wrong way. And, it is not something I would want my children reading. It continues that the Nazi doctors order a nurse to kill the baby with poison. The nurse cannot commit the “heinous deed” and instead, in the tradition of Moses, sends him down the river in a basket. It could be that I am just unfamiliar with superhero cartoons, but for me, the cartoon is just too dark and subtle, even for a perceptive student.

Thirdly, Karl does not embody the typical Jewish experience in Germany in WWII. While this could be a plus since it makes the story different from many Holocaust tales, in this case, it just makes the book seem unrealistic. Instead, Karl has all of the minor characters embody the “common Jewish experiences,” and he simply watches. For example, Karl’s uncle Jakob is sent to Dachau Concentration Camp because of his Communist activities where he allegedly dies of dysentery. The Jewish shopkeeper where he buys his art supplies cannot earn enough to feed his family and sees his shop smashed. Karl’s father has trouble selling his art and is eventually attacked and sent to prison. The only things Karl experiences for himself as a result of his Jewish heritage is being kicked out of school, disqualified from a boxing tournament, and forbidden from dating a Catholic girl. These seem so mild as to be trivial, compared with the experiences of others.

Lastly, there is a lot of discussion of homosexuality and cross-dressing. A major character is a man in drag. Interestingly enough, the man turns out to be the most admirable character in the entire book in terms of his integrity and courage. However, the cross-dressing underworld is not necessarily the type of fodder most parents want their teens and tweens contemplating. The book might be acceptable for a high school boy who is interested in boxing, but I do not recommend giving it to a student under fourteen years old. In conclusion, The Berlin Boxing Club has a complex plot and well-crafted characters, but there are too many elements that detract from the story. I give the story three stars (out of five).

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 15, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

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