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The June 29, 2009 issue of the New Yorker has an article about the election protests in Iran. The article, for obvious reasons, has no by-line. The author, in describing the events of the "green" uprising, visits a friend in Tehran. He tells us of his friend:
He bought a satellite dish, so that the family can now watch the BBC's Persian Channel – or, at least, when it isn't jammed. "It has shown us that everything we have been watching here, most of our lives, is full of lies," he said."
We all know of the actions taken by the government in Iran to block images and information about the clashes between the protestors and the rulers. It is impossible when listening to the historical novel The Boy Who Dared not to compare the events of today in Iran with the events in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. The only difference is the technology. The Nazis blocked the BBC radio from the citizens and provided the official line through a state run radio station. The Iranian Rulers block Twitter and Facebook, television and cell phones, in their attempts to control the information reported to the world.
Bartoletti presents an historical novel based on the story of Helmuth Hübener, a boy who is caught up in the seeming patriotism of the swashbuckling storm trooper uniforms, shiny jackboots and swastika armbands. She discovers Helmuth's story while writing the Newberry Honor winning Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow and has fleshed out the story of this brave lad in this historical novel. It is easy to understand her motivation, for the story of Helmuth and his friends and family cries out to be told as a way of understanding the time and the pressures faced by people living in Nazi Germany. By focusing on this one person and telling us what he might have felt and thought in the context of the facts of his time and place, she is able to bring the past alive – to make us see and hear the and feel the truth of life in Nazi Germany.
The story is told through flashback as Helmuth, the youngest prisoner, awaits his execution. We listen with him as he hears the guard go to a nearby cell and announce to the prison "Come. It is time." That is what they always say when taking a prisoner to be executed. While waiting Helmuth relates his story. We learn of the initial hope when Hitler first comes to power – there is pride and the promise of prosperity again. We watch as more and more rights are taken away on the grounds of national defence. We are on the street when the brown shirts begin to attack the Jews. We see the German Jews forced to wear identifying badges and see their shops destroyed as the Nazis gain power.
Slowly Helmuth, a brave and brilliant student, begins to believe that the truth is somewhere other than in the daily propaganda the citizens are being fed. He is given a short wave radio by his brother to hide for after the war, but finally the urge to listen to another voice overpowers him and he starts to listen to the BBC on the radio at night after his family is asleep. He is astounded at the difference between the story told by the BBC and the official line produced by the German propaganda machine. He introduces two of his friends to the secret radio and together they begin to write and distribute handbills with anti-Nazi revelations.
The Listening Library production is excellent. David Ackroyd is a fine reader who lets the text do its work. His strong voice provides a reality to the characters. There is a review of the main events of the Nazi rise and fall at the end of the story plus a moving description of the way in which Bartoletti researched and wrote the story of this young man who was executed for trying to find the truth in the midst of an army of lies.
Although primarily a book for youth, (In fact, it is only in a book blurb that I learned of its intended audience.) The Boy Who Dared is a challenging work for all ages, providing, as it does, a window into the past with a clear view of the indomitable spirit of freedom seeking human beings of all times and places. For students and teachers there is a Study Guide in PDF format with an intelligent discussion of aspects of the novel, its creation, and sources for further study. One of the primary sources recommended is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has itself recently been the site of continuing hatred and violence.
For those readers old enough to remember the way a family sat around the radio and listened together to dramatic readings of programs like the Lux Theatre, this audio book provides the opportunity to have that experience again.
Listen to The Boy Who Dared with your children and use it as a way of learning from the past.
© 2009 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.