Monday, June 6, 2011

If I Should Die before I Wake by Han Nolan

Hilary Burke, 16, is an angry girl. She is angry at her mother for not being there for her while she was a child. And she is angry at her father for dying when she was 5. Hilary blames his death on his Jewish boss, believing that he skimped on construction material causing the building her father worked in to collapse. So she is angry at all Jews and has focused it on her Jewish neighbors including their son, Simon Schulmann, for being part of a happy, close family.

To deal with all this anger, Hilary joins a group of Neo-Nazis called the Great Warriors. But then, irony of ironies, Hilary is almost fatally injured in a motorcycle crash with her Neo-Nazi boyfriend, Brad, and ends up in a Jewish hospital. Now, unable to speak or move, she is at the mercy of her own mind, and the only thing she can see is the face of an older woman looking at her.

Suddenly, in the midst of her angry internal anti-Semitic tirade, Hilary feels herself spinning backwards. When she stops spinning, she finds herself in Nazi-occupied Poland, where her name is Chana Bergman and she is somehow in possession of all of this girl’s memories. She is on her way to school with a best friend, when the two are stopped by Nazis and Hilary/Chana is forced to spend the day washing steps with her own brand new woolen tights. On her way home, she finds her beloved father has been suspended from a tree with his coat by a group of laughing Nazis. It is his punishment for not shoveling a pile of dirt fast enough. Hilary/Chana picks up the shovel and does the job, hoping the Nazis will let her father go, but in the end, they just shoot him to death anyway.

Hilary’s memories continue to swing between the past and present. In the present, Hilary continues her hateful rhetoric about Jews, in the past, as Chana, she is on the receiving end of this same hateful rhetoric from the Nazis. And each time she is in the present, she continues to only see the face of the elderly woman looking at her.

Slowly, Chana becomes the dominant memory for Hilary. Living at home with her are her grandparents, Bubbe and Zayde, her mother, older brother Jakub, sister Anya, 6, and the baby Nadzia. Rumor has reached the family that the Nazis are rounding up Jews and the family is preparing the give up Nadzia to a non-Jewish family that will protect her.

Shortly after Nadzia is gone, the family is rounded up and moved into one room in the Lodz Ghetto. The horrors of the ghetto are sometimes described by Chana in very graphic detail, as are the struggles of the family to stay alive. Sadly, Zadye eventually dies, then Chana’s mother and sister are rounded up for deportation and we never hear about them again. Jakub, who has gotten involved in smuggling people out of the ghetto, eventually helps Chana and Bubbe escape, but Chana is recognized by an old schoolmate, who thinks that turning her in will get her better treatment.

Chana and Bubbe are interrogated by the Nazis trying to find out who they got their illegal papers from, but neither one breaks. Eventually, they both end up in Auschwitz.

Yes, you do find out who the older woman is that Hilary keeps seeing and the story does have a bit of a surprise ending, which has already been ‘spoiled’ online, but I don’t read any reviews about books until I have finished reading them. Even so, I have to confess, it wasn’t a hard ending to figure out before I was halfway through the book, yet it still doesn’t detract from the story of Chana and the novel’s impact.

I found this book to have an interesting premise by adding the Neo-Nazi element. Hilary wasn’t really a Neo-Nazi at heart, but it shows how easily a person can be drawn into something like that when they don’t feel there is anywhere else to turn and they are made to feel important to the cause. Often, it is really no different then the way children were drawn into the Hitler Youth in 1930s Germany. And although this book may feel a little dated since we don’t hear much about Neo-Nazis anymore, but don’t be fooled by that – they are still out there.

Some people have compared If I Should Die before I Wake to The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. I have not read this book yet, because I thought the movie was so awful, I was turned off to it, but do plan to read very soon. I suspect the real similarity is the time travel back to Nazi-occupied Poland.

All in all, I found this to be a truly worthwhile novel and would highly recommend it, though maybe not to middle grade readers, or even for that matter, to immature YA age readers because of the disturbing, graphic descriptions.

If I Should Die before I Wake won the following well-deserved honors:
1995 International Reading Association/Children's Book Council Book Award
1995 New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
1999 A YALSA Popular Paperback for Young Adults

This book is recommended for readers age 13 and up.
This novel was purchased for my personal library.

More information on the Lodz Ghetto can be found at Jewish Virtual Library

More information on Auschwitz can be found at PBS Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State and any number of other responsible websites.

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