Monday, July 18, 2016

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

It's 1936, and 7 year-old Pierrot Fischer, a sweet, kind boy, has just become an orphan.  His beloved but abusive German-born father had left his wife and son a few years earlier, and later died when he was hit by an oncoming train.  Pierrot's mother, through loving and devoted to her son, developed tuberculosis and has just passed away.  Pierrot is staying with his a long-time best friend, Anshel Bronstein and his mother, but he is soon sent to live in an orphanage, and from there, he is sent to live with his Aunt Beatrix in Bavaria.

Arriving at the small German village of Berchtesgaden, Pierrot soon finds himself living in a large mountainside home, the Berghof, where his aunt is housekeeper.  His aunt immediately changes his name to Pieter to sound more German, after all, her employer is the leader of Germany and the Nazi party, Adolf Hitler, and it wouldn't due for her nephew to appear too French.

Pieter is a smart young boy and very observant of what is going on around him.  Little by little, he is taken in by the uniforms, the shiny jackboots, and the power that Nazis from the Hitler Youth to Hitler himself all seem to wield. Soon, Hitler takes Pieter under his wings when he is at the Berghof, even giving him an honorary Deutsches Jungvolk uniform to wear, despite he is too young to officially join the Hitler Youth, much to the distress of his aunt.

And so, Pieter, a boy who has been the target of bullies in the past, is quickly taken in by the power and charisma of what he sees around him and it doesn't take long for him to start ordering the servants at the Berghof around, including his aunt. Smug in his favored position, he grows to be an arrogant, cold, calculating teen, and while he wears a Hitler Youth uniform every day now, he has never officially joined that group and never participates in any of their activities - Pieter doesn't even know other members.  He is allowed to attend the local school, where he meets Katarina.  He is clearly infatuated with her, but she lets him know in no uncertain terms how she feels about the Nazis.

When he discovers a plot to poison Hitler, Pieter's loyalty to him is tested as it leads to betrayal and death in ways that leave him cold, and the reader in shock.  But as heartless as Pieter becomes, because of his isolated life, he seems to retain some naivet√©.  For instance, while taking notes in a meeting of Hitler and the architects of the death camps, he doesn't understand why no water will come out of the shower heads, and he doesn't seen to know who Leni Riefenstahl is at a party at the Berghof even though she was so closely allied to Hitler back then.

Pieter's transformation from a kind, loving, caring young boy to a ruthless young man by the end of the war would leave no possibility for redemption given some of the things he has done.  But then, one must ask themselves, given his age at the beginning of his indoctrination, just how complicit, how guilty is he, and is some form of redemption even still a possibility for him?

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a dark, well-written, well-plotted story told in the third person from Pieter's point of view.  It is a solid work of historical fiction, that allows Pieter to encounter a lot of the people that Hitler surrounded himself with, even though he wasn't at the Berghof all that frequently.  One interesting note is a nod to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas- Bruno and his parents, Elsa and Ralf, make a brief appearance in this novel at the train station when Pieter is traveling from France to Germany, and where Ralf's incredible level of cruelty is directed at Pieter, and later at the Berghof, Ralf is present at the discussion of building the death camps (you will remember, Ralf was the commandant at an Auschwitz-like camp in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas).  

While The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is kind of an improbable story, it is an interesting study in how easily a child can be corrupted by power, of how a bullied young boy can become a bully himself under the right circumstances.  Boyne makes clear that the moment of transformation for Pieter began on the train to his aunt, when a Hitler Youth demanded and ate all of his sandwiches - the message was clear - that uniform was power.  But when Hitler showed up, Pieter realized he was the source of the uniform's power.

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is not without a few problems that bothered me.  Pierrot has a good knowledge of novels by Alexandre Dumas, namely The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers, books I thought a little advanced for a 7 year-old boy.  At the orphanage, he is given a copy of Emil and die Detectives by Erich K√§stner.  He later finds a copy in Hitler's library, but there is no indication that it is Pieter's copy.   Later, at a birthday party for Eva Braun, Hitler's companion, Pieter gives her a copy of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.  Both of these books were burned and banned in 1933 and it is unlikely they would be available.  Small points, I know, but it's important to understand Hitler's grip on Germany.

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is ideal for readers interested in WWII, and sadly, still very relevant in today's world.  Combine this novel with Boyne's earlier works, Stay Where You Are & Then Leave (WWI - Pieter's father was in the war and suffering from PTSD), and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas for an interesting trilogy.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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