Some time periods in history are so widely written about that it hardly seems as if we need more books about it. World War II is arguably one of these. It's not that it isn't worth reading titles set during this timeframe, it's just that with so many quality options already on the shelves, are there still other viewpoints we haven't examined?
In Ashes, Kathryn Lasky manages to give us a different perspective - that of Gaby Schramm, an upper class German girl who gets an inside look at the formation of Hitler's Third Reich. Gaby's parents are close enough to the social elite that they know many powerful people in Germany's upper echelon. Professor Schramm is a colleague of Albert Einstein, and the two families vacation together during summers in Caputh. The Schramms watch with growing horror as Einstein and other prominent scientists are singled out for their "Jewish physics", as friends are banned from social events due to their ethnicity, and as those who make the wrong comment in a public setting suddenly disappear.
Gaby herself despises Hitler and all his government stands for; and yet, she finds herself going along with the required "Heil Hitler" salute when it becomes part of her school day. Though she refuses to join the Hitler Youth, it is not until one of the Reich's new policies touches close to home that Gaby finds the courage to really define her opposition, and to turn with her parents toward another life.
I picked Ashes up looking for something like The Book Thief; while I found Zusak's book more compelling, Ashes is still a strongly written title with a unique take on the events of Nazi Germany. As the heat gradually turns up around the Schramm family, Lasky shows us how the political events combine with Gaby's own internal struggles to give her an increasing awareness of the world at large. Forced to confront the effect that politics has on her own household, Gaby grows up very quickly - maybe too quickly, as she often has insights that seem beyond her own years. And yet, in times such as these, doesn't maturity come all too suddenly?
Though some libraries shelve this in the children's section, there are themes here that seem more suited to teens, particularly a plotline revolving around Gaby's sister Ulla and her boyfriend Karl. The overall message, too, is one that will speak to young adults in a more immediate way -- that of reconciling the world you've grown up with alongside that you've come to know, which in Gaby's case is one that conflicts in nearly every aspect with her pampered childhood. Lasky ties in connections to actual historical figures, weaving them into her cast of characters so seamlessly that the events of Nazi Germany come alive as we read.
Ashes is, above all, a subtle and unforgettable piece of historical fiction, and a worthy contribution to the canon of World War II literature.
Ashes by Kathryn Lasky, published by Viking
Ages 12 up
Sample: "I thought of that swirl of sugar on the kitchen floor from years before. How could Hitler cause so many problems? I put down the binoculars. The scrap of moon had slipped away, making the dark even darker and the stars even brighter. They scorched the blackness with their fire. Ninety-two elements to bake a universe and one madman to blow it up?"