Philipp Schott is a small animal vet and the author of two prior books, The Accidental Veterinarian: Tales from a Pet Practice and How to Examine a Wolverine: More Tales from the Accidental Veterinarian. This is his first novel, and it’s based upon the true life story of his father, Ludwig Schott, growing up in Nazi Germany during WWII. Ludwig’s father, Wilhem, was a high-ranking official in the Nazi party in Leipzig. This meant he was always away from home on “important Nazi business” leaving Ludwig’s mother to care for Ludwig and his siblings by herself. This novel is told in the form of a memoir from Ludwig’s point of view from his early childhood up to the age of 15. At age 9, Ludwig was sent to a Hitler youth camp for young boys to be programmed as a loyal Nazi soldier. Think of this as an overly aggressive preschool primer for potential Nazis before they are sent to the real Hitler youth camps at 14. We stay with Ludwig through his tenure in the camp and follow him back home to Russian-occupied East Germany where things continue to get worse for the family. This all culminates in a desperate attempt at escape to West Germany in pursuit of a better life.
This is a fantastic new perspective that’s rarely portrayed in literature or film of this era. It’s easy to ignore or forget entirely that German citizens were fed loads of propaganda and were forced into party loyalty. Those who didn’t agree with the Nazi’s ideas and methods generally lay low so as not to draw attention. If they didn’t, they were carted off to camps or summarily executed for some trumped up crime, which could be as petty as having chocolate when no one else did.
Ludwig is, perhaps, the perfect narrator for such a story. We see all events unfold through his eyes. He’s no more than a child at the beginning of the war, and he finds himself confused by illogical and unfeeling human behavior. Ludwig is quite different from his peers. He’s extremely intelligent, introverted, and he’s much more interested in being out in the forest with the birds than he is in being with other boys his age. Ludwig knows he is different, and today we can glean from the information that Ludwig is almost certainly on the autism spectrum, but in the 1930’s and 40’s, this wasn’t something parents, peers and educators would have understood. Being so different makes Ludwig the target of the other boys’ cruelty. Not only does he have to grapple with finding his own place in a world unsympathetic to boys like him, but he’s also tasked with literal survival in a country that’s being led into war by a tyrannical maniac and his boneheaded minions. He is forced to contemplate and conceptualize death before any child should have to do so. I found it fascinating the way Ludwig’s mind turned to logic, sometimes humorously, no matter the situation or how dire it truly was. He is a refreshingly unique protagonist. While I’m going to classify this one as my WWII book for the reading challenge, it could also be deemed both a coming of age story and an Own Voices story told from the perspective of someone in an under-represented demographic.
Ludwig is caught in the middle of a dichotomous relationship between his mother and father, the latter of which spews the Nazi propaganda with a vociferous glee while the former takes a much more skeptical approach. Of course, a woman’s opinions and desires carried much less weight during this time whether or not she was in possession of more functioning brain cells than her husband. I positively adored Ludwig’s mom. By far, she was the character with the most depth. I internally celebrated every time she stood her ground and verbalized her disapproval of the party to her husband. Perhaps I could relate to her the most. As a mother of young children, I can place myself in her shoes and imagine the breadth of human emotion that would overcome me when faced with such a situation.
Mama Schott deals with more than any individual ever should. She’s tasked with the sole care and protection of her children while war looms, she’s pregnant during a time when food is scarce, and her philandering husband cares more about pleasing his various girlfriends and the fuhrer than he does whether or not his family is safe from bombs. I felt very deeply for her throughout the book, and I thought Schott did a wonderful job presenting her internal struggles and her descent into depression, which accurately became more acute as events in the novel unfolded. And Ludwig’s all encompassing love and worry for his mother was very authentic. In a boy so driven by logic, it was wonderful to see the emotional vulnerability that peeked through the surface as he contemplated his mother.
A prime example of one of the most memorable moments of Ludwig’s internal contemplation of big adult concepts was his dissection of grief. Upon seeing a peer dissolve into a heap of hysterical wailing after learning of the loss of his father on the battlefield, Ludwig begins to quantify the amount of grief he would show if his father were to die versus that he would show if his mother were to die. He realizes these are very different amounts of grief, and he doesn’t really understand what this means or if it is normal, but he understands that it’s a fact, and it is interesting, to say the least. Like I said, he’s a logical kid. Moments like this are representative of Schott’s impeccable character development.
When Ludwig arrives at the Hitler youth camp, the bullying he’s always endured intensifies and thrives in the more militaristic environment, but we see how he’s able to use his resourcefulness and cunning to his advantage. What sets this book apart from many other WWII novels is that it doesn’t end with the close of the war. For the German citizens in Russian-occupied territory, they were merely transferred from one despotic regime to another. They were on the losing side of the war and had been deemed either monsters or cowards, as unfair as that latter designation may be for people who had been victimized by deceit and threats of violence. The true test of this family comes with their final attempt at escaping what was once their home in search of an opportunity to thrive.
Overall, this is a lovely book. It’s very character driven. It doesn’t hold back with the harsh realities of war, and it doesn’t verge into sickly-sweet sentimentality. It’s a very authentic and personal account that is aided by the fact that it is based upon a real life story, a story to which the author holds a family claim. That fact makes the story much more powerful. Philipp also takes over the narration in the end so that he can give a bit of insight to his methodology, and he gives a lovely personal account of his perceptions as a child of the people whose story we’d just heard.
One final thing about Mama Schott, and I swear I’m done with this terribly long review. This might seem to verge into spoiler territory, which I swore I’d never do, but it’s really quite mild and I have to give credit to this badass woman by sharing my own anecdote. At one point, Mama Schott walks across rough terrain in the face of terrible peril weighed down with starvation, heaps of worries, fear of being shot, and a sleeping 3 year old. I have a 3 year old boy. A couple of weeks ago, my wee Henry wanted to take a walk with me around the block. We did one pass and he decided he wasn’t done, so we walked a bit further. Halfway around the block, he decided he was tired and needed me to carry him. Granted, my 3 year old hasn’t been nearly starving since birth and he is fairly sizeable, but I also haven’t been starving for the past several years like Mama Schott. I’m a bit out of shape, but I can certainly carry my kid. Still, by the time we got to the house my back ached, and my arms and legs were on fire. We hadn’t even gone that far! Anywho, mad respect for the mamas (and daddies) who literally carry their children many miles to deliver them to a better life than that to which they were born. Especially if, like Mama Schott, they’ve also battled their own internal demons in a fierce depression and found one final ounce of physical and emotional strength in order to save their children. Parents have been doing this for years, and I guarantee you that at this very moment, there is someone pushing through the pain, carrying all manner of physical and emotional burdens, simply to deliver her children to the life they deserve. The villains and the context may change, but no reason is more or less valid than another. Keep walking, mama, because you’re going to make it.
This is a fabulous work of character-driven historical fiction. 4 1/2 stars.
Pub. date: March 2021 by ECW Press; ISBN 9781773057545; Runtime 10 hrs, 17 mins, Read by Brian Webber.