Grab the Kleenex: Boys story gives readers straight truth, no chaser

BOOK REVIEW

As J.K. Rowling’s writing grows darker with every sequel and Chris Crutcher spins disturbingly believable tales about boys struggling with their inner demons, readers of young adult literature are becoming familiar with a burgeoning subgenre of harsh young adult realism.

Jeffrey Shandler’s new translation of “Emil and Karl” by the respected Yiddish author Yankev Glatshteyn is a heroic, important addition to the canon — more so because it was originally published in 1940. The book is set in a Vienna where Nazis assault children and sympathetic adults try to intervene.

As one character says, “only good people have a face. You can recognize good people, but bad people all look the same.” The chilling anonymity, and implied majority, of the bad people provides a backdrop for the heartbreaking adventures of Karl and Emil, two 9-year-old boys who lose everyone they love. The descriptions of the city’s new horrors are as compelling as the book’s characters.

Raised by socialists, Karl stamps his foot, asks questions, and is fearless — he can eat in a crisis and defends his Jewish friend Emil, who is more thoughtful, more fearful, and cries more than he eats.

When Karl’s’ mother is arrested in the first chapter, he runs to Emil’s house where Emil’s mother has just received a box of her recently arrested husband’s ashes. Orphaned, the boys rely on the kindnesses of strangers, while frenzied crowds herd them into nightmares: public humiliations, bloody beatings, a suicide, arrest after arrest.

The boys share the immature, endearing relationship of young Kavalier and Clay of Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel but, in their powerlessness against adults, remind us of the vulnerability of youth.

Young Karl asks what makes “them” do it and no one, not even the author, seems to know for sure; it is a powerful, unsettling question — one that modern day readers probably ask of modern day atrocities.

Glatshteyn’s writing style also feels traditional, and one can easily hear some of the Yiddish cadence; it leans toward the explanatory and is riddled with wonderful, visceral language; a suit looted from a Jewish shop hangs in the thief’s closet “like a dead man.” As the action rises, the book becomes steeped in images of day and night, blindness and seeing, symbolizing the conflicts at hand and the world’s slow awareness and recognition of them.

The first morning after his mother’s capture, “At first, Karl pretended to be asleep. He rolled over on his side and closed his eyes. He wished he could fall asleep, and then, when he woke up, everything would be better. Emil’s mother wouldn’t still be sitting there, and Emil wouldn’t look like an old man — that’s what Karl tried to convince himself. But he couldn’t keep his eyes shut for long, because even then he could still see Emil.”

Like Karl, we don’t want to keep reading, but we’ve been taught to never forget and even if we close the book the reality of history is still sitting there, like Emil. So we continue, because it’s a terrifically captivating story, intended to send children to their parents for explanations and Kleenex, and because we hope, ridiculously, that, in the end, the boys will link arms with the Von Trapps and be rescued.

Of course, the finale is not warm, fuzzy or cheerful; there is no redemption waiting with our heroes’ maturity, no sequel to look forward to. The book was written in 1940. We already know what happens next.

“Emil and Karl” by Yankev Glatshteyn, translated by Jeffrey Chandler (194 pages, Roaring Brook Press, $17.95)