What genre is The Child Soldier?
What is the novel about?
Amid the violence and chaos of the final days of Germany’s involvement in World War Two, Thomas, a child soldier conscripted against his will by the desperate Volkssturm militia, is shot and killed by the advancing Red Army three blocks from his shrapnel-scarred apartment in Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg District.
Thomas’ mother, Anna, upon learning of the death of her only child, descends into a deep and lasting state of grief. Her anguish is worsened by the unwritten rule Germans establish at war’s end: don’t talk about how the war affected you; just move on. Anna withdraws from the world, seeking solace by reading fairy tales and books about wayward spirits, reincarnation and the transmigration of souls.
Across the Atlantic in suburban Toronto twenty years later, eight year old Morton Hodges becomes increasingly preoccupied with World War Two: armed with plastic Luger water pistols, he and his pals play Nazis in the schoolyard; he collects War Bulletin trading cards bought at the drug store and watches Hogan’s Heroes on TV. Morton then finds a book of his dad’s entitled Berlin Destroyed which contains dozens of grim photographs, including one of a distraught German child soldier. Morton ponders the fate of the unnamed young boy and wonders what it is like to die - in fact he soon develops a debilitating fear of his own mortality. Morton can’t explain his attraction to Berlin Destroyed –– but keeps returning to its images of desperation and death.
A high school trip to Eastern Europe intensifies Morton’s interest in the war, and spurs him to return there on his own in later years, hoping to come across vestiges of pre-war Berlin. He ventures across the Wall to East Berlin and meets an East German named Peter who shares the story of his life in a police state – or at least attempts to do so...
Morton’s encounter with Peter has profound ramifications for both men, and culminates in Morton crossing paths with the aging Anna in her musty flat after the fall of the Wall. At first he regards his encounter with her as the product of chance. While they are together, however, he finds himself kneeling by Anna’s side as she releases, for the first time, her decades’-old grief for her son. And by the end of the novel, Anna gives Morton compelling reasons to believe that his improbable journey to her door began with his childhood fascination with the war, which was the genesis of a mission imposed on him by an at times reckless but ultimately benevolent force seeking to bring the two of them together for reasons Morton discovers – but only after Anna’s death.
What makes The Child Soldier unique?
The novel reveals the humanity of people coming to terms with their roles as both perpetrators and victims of evil in World War Two and in the subsequent totalitarian systems in Eastern Europe.
Hitler, Stalin, and their sycophants intimidated otherwise well-meaning people to perpetrate evil – denial of rights, torture, murder. In the face of such circumstances, The Child Soldier carries a message of hope: many of those coerced to perform evil acts ultimately show contrition and seek redemption once the intimidation ceases, if not sooner. Further, victims of evil instinctively want to take whatever steps will allow them to attain closure so they can live peaceably. However, perpetrators and victims alike often need an explicit invitation as a catalyst to move forward. Who offers such invitations, and their motivation for doing so, are central questions of the novel.
The Child Soldier is Bruce’s first novel. Bruce is a graduate of the Humber School of Writers Summer Workshop.
Copyright © 2013 Bruce Rhodes. All rights reserved.