Today, we're also reviewing A Night Divided by Jennifer E. Nielsen. I've largely been familiar with Jennifer's fantasy work, so I was interested in seeing how she'd handle a real-life historical topic.
Spoiler: Remarkably well. Nielsen paints a tense fictional picture of the lives experienced by residents who lived in the real East Berlin. This book was gripping, harrowing and a reminder of why I love MG books so much.
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published August 25th 2015 by Scholastic
Format read: ARC via publisher
Jennifer Nielsen's faithful historical retelling of the Berlin Wall will likely keep readers intrigued, while encouraging them to seek out real-world history sources, when they finish reading.
With the rise of the Berlin Wall, twelve-year-old Gerta finds her family divided overnight. She, her mother, and her brother Fritz live on the eastern side, controlled by the Soviets. Her father and middle brother, who had gone west in search of work, cannot return home. Gerta knows it is dangerous to watch the wall, to think forbidden thoughts of freedom, yet she can't help herself. She sees the East German soldiers with their guns trained on their own citizens; she, her family, her neighbors and friends are prisoners in their own city.
But one day, while on her way to school, Gerta spots her father on a viewing platform on the western side, pantomiming a peculiar dance. Then, when she receives a mysterious drawing, Gerta puts two and two together and concludes that her father wants Gerta and Fritz to tunnel beneath the wall, out of East Berlin. However, if they are caught, the consequences will be deadly. No one can be trusted. Will Gerta and her family find their way to freedom?
So when Xander from Foreverbookish told me about A Night Divided at TLA, I made the point to seek out the book, because I figured that it would be a good starting point for me to delve further into the history of the Wall. And I was right.
Acclaimed author Jennifer Nielsen introduces us to Gerta, a young twelve-year-old girl who wakes up on August 13th, 1961 to discover that the Berlin Wall is now dividing her city in half. The wall has also separated Gerta from her father and brother, who have previously gone over to West Berlin to try and find a new home for their family.
Now, as Gerta and her mother and brother try to adjust to a city ruled by restricted freedoms and uncertain futures, a chance sighting of her father begins to make Gerta think that she may have a chance to save her family and herself...
What's notable about A Night Divided, is the unwavering tone of determination that runs throughout the book from beginning to end. Even as Gerta adjusts to life in a divided city without her brother and father, Nielsen makes it clear that Gerta is determined to live her day-to-day life, trying to make the best of what they have. She talks music; dreams about eating now-black market foods, and tries to maintain a low-profile for her family's sake.
It's a nice, underlying emphasis by Nielsen, on the idea that East Berlin residents like Gerta had no choice but to live their day-to-day lives because there was no other alternative. And Nielsen does really do a great job of stressing that there's a certain dignity in trying to live ahead of the government's rules; Gerta and her brother's quiet defiance is a resounding reminder of the genuine strength of the human spirit inspite of incredible odds.
Even as Gerta increasingly begins to realize the dangers of staying in East Berlin, her determination and resourcefulness in trying to find a way to cross over with her family is a frank reminder on the possiblities of what an individual can achieve. Gerta's willingness to work the system, and to also take incredible risks, is equally inspiring as it is sobering, as readers will likely be reminded that Gerta's efforts also occurred in real life.
And while the book eventually crests to an expected denouenment, it's worth every moment that it's taken to get there.
Of special note: Nielsen is very frank in her depictions of the tense, paranoid atmosphere that purveyed East Berlin throughout this period, particularly when it came to neighbors turning on neighbors.
Younger readers may struggle with the ramifications of that paranoia, especially with the understanding that many of those that were betrayed by neighbors eventually met their own demise. Nielsen makes it a point to ask many pointed questions about the situation, including the reasons and costs of such actions. It's a great starting point for much-needed discussion.
Gerta's journey is a perilous one, full of stark and humanizing realizations on how friends and family are irrevocably changed, when they're forced to confront their mortality on a daily basis. Nielsen's writing clearly shows thorough research and understanding of the challenges of the era, and will help readers mutually root for Gerta and her family, while seeing the other side of the political equation.
I highly, highly recommend this book for all readers, full stop.
About the author:
Jennifer A. Nielsen is the acclaimed author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling Ascendance Trilogy: The False Prince, The Runaway King, and The Shadow Throne. She has also written The Underworld Chronicles, a humorous middle-grade fantasy series. Jennifer lives in northern Utah with her husband, their three children, and a perpetually muddy dog.