Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My Brother’s Shadow by Monika Schröder

My Brother’s Shadow is a realistic look at life on the home front in Berlin just as World War I is coming to a close and Germany is about to surrender, a time and place not usually explored in young adult fiction. 

Moritz Schmidt, 16, lives in a small apartment with his mother Anna Schmidt, sister Hedwig and grandmother.  His older brother Hans is off fighting in the trenches at the Western Front, where his father has already been killed.  And a little sister has also died relatively recently. Moritz works in the newspaper printing room of the Berliner Daily and has made friends with a journalist who takes him to an illegal meeting of Social Democrats.  These are revolutionaries advocating the abdication of the Kaiser and demanding that Germany become a democratic country once the war has ended.  It is at this meeting that Moritz discovers his mother is a much respected speaker and member of the Social Democrats. 

After 4 years of war, life is very hard for most of the people of Germany.  They must stand in long lines to get what little food is available; there is little fuel to heat their homes.  But once Moritz is initiated into his brother’s old gang, he learns that their activities consist mainly in breaking in and stealing the ample food supplies of the rich, an undertaking not much to his liking.    

When the family receives news that Hans has been seriously injured at the front, Moritz takes the train to the field hospital in Metz, Alsace-Lorraine.  On the train, he meets a friendly young Jewish girl, named Rebecca, who gives him a book she has been reading.  Later, he meets her again at another illegal Social Democrat meeting and discovers she too supports the revolutionary ideas of both his mother and sister.

When Hans comes home, missing an eye and an arm, he is enraged at his mother’s activities, his brother’s budding romance with Rebecca and Moritz’s attitude towards his old gang.  It causes a schism in the household, with Hans taking the side of the Kaiser’s Germany, and feeling that people like his mother have betrayed the soldiers fighting for Germany and advocating a revolution in Germany.  Moritz stands in the middle – caught in the kind of patriotic feelings the sent so many to war in the first place, yet seeing that change needs to happen.  The Schmidt family, then, becomes a microcosm of exactly what is happening throughout Germany at the end of the war.

Schröder has done an excellent job in researching and representing the time and events she is writing about.  One of the things that Hitler blamed the loss of the war on was the supposed lack of support by the home front and the readers sees this attitude reflected in Hans’s reactions to things after he come home.  Hans also feels the same kind of virulent anti-Semitism that propelled Hitler’s later policies.  These feelings are portrayed with such intensity that I knew it would only a matter of a few years before Hans would have been a member of the fledging Nazi party, as did so many of his real life counterparts. 

I thought that Schröder also captured the passion and fearlessness of the revolutionaries just as strongly. Important names like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, radical left wing members of the revolution and Friedrich Ebert, a conservative Social Democrat, appear in the story, and I really liked that she has even included the important Sailor’s Revolt in Kiel. Given this background information, the reader most clearly can see the contrast between Hans and his mother, making this very thought provoking aspect to the story.  Mixed into all this is Moritz, an naïve young man with a strong sense of right and wrong, but at least in the beginning no political commitment. 

I found my thought returning to this novel long after I had finished it, which to my mind make My Brother’s Shadow is an example of historical fiction at its finest – a seamless blending of fact and fiction to create a story the in entertaining and informative, and one I can highly recommend to both YA and adult readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL

My Brother's Shadow is book 1 of my World War I Reading Challenge
My Brother's Shadow is book 1 of my European Reading Challenge
My Brother's Shadow is book 1 of my Historical Tapestry Reading Challenge

My Brother’s Shadow
Monika Schröder
Farrar Straus Giroux
224 Pages


  1. This seems like a really good book. One day every one from that period will be dead and we'll need books like to teach our kids how things were.

  2. Wow! Sounds like a great book!

    You lit a fire under me! There is now a review page for the European Reading Challenge. I added your link, so your review is the first on the list.

  3. This book is high on my WWI Reading Challenge List. (which I have yet to create!) Really appreciate your reflections on this.

  4. Mac Campbell, yes, it is true about needing these books to teach our kids about the past.

    Rose City Reader, Thanks for adding me to the review page for the European Reading Challenge. I have been dying to post this review.

    Joyce, I think you will definitely like this book. I couldn't put it down.

  5. I'm glad to see your review of My Brother's Shadow and that you enjoyed it too. The storyline has remained in my mind since I read it.

  6. This sounds like a great read. I hadn't heard of it until now! I like the fact that the resrearch was clearly done and the plot sounds interesting. I haven't read many books about this time period. Thanks for sharing!


  7. This one is something I would like to read myself. And you're right, we need more books to teach to our children. Sadly, even the local bestsellers in my country, which, though bestsellers, are not earning much, are not popular among young adults.

  8. This sounds like a useful book in that history isn't merely about outcomes, but also about the process that leads one to them. I have family history connected to the Social Democratic party in Germany so this sounds like a book I would find very interesting. Thanks for the review.

  9. Sarah, I was looking forward to this book after I read your review and I am so glad I did, looking forward to reading Schroeder's other books.

    Jess, this is a good read if you like historical fiction, hope you enjoy it.

    Nancy, it is too bad about YA not being popular in your country, my daughter says the same thing about China. This would be a great book to read.

    Ted, I agree that sometimes process is so much more interesting than outcome. What an interesting family you must have to be connected with that period in history = it was an exciting time.

  10. Thanks for participating in the WWI reading challenge. This sounds excellent and your review excerpt will publish on Jan. 9. I've added it to the reviews page

  11. Alex, I really enjoyed this book too, recommending it recently on my own blog about YA books beyond the bestsellers.

    With so many books about WWII, there really aren't many about WWI, especially for young readers. Historical fiction - especially as well-crafted as this book - can help readers understand why individuals thought and reacted in certain ways, including the ways that lead to revolution and war.

    (found you through MotherReader & Lee Wind's Comment Challenge)

    **Katy Manck
    Recommending YA books beyond the bestsellers at http://BooksYALove.blogspot.com
    Follow me on Twitter @BooksYALove

  12. Hi Alex! I'm glad I found your blog through Comment Challenge. I'm a huge fan of historical fiction and looking forward to reading MY BROTHER'S SHADOW. Thanks for the positive review.