...The conclusion of the week devoted to the new novel, Shadows Walking.
"More people thinking everything is stupid or corrupt or evil than people who think things are good. More people hating. Wanting to do someone or something harm. Anti-Semites, Anti-Communists, Anti-Women, Anti-modern art, music...Hating everything and everyone different from them. We're all in trouble if this doesn't stop."
Philipp's prophetic words appear in an early chapter of the book, Shadows Walking, by Douglas Skopp. I've noted already that I think highly of the novel, which is considered historical fiction but based on detailed and thorough study of historical documents from the time period prior to and through the Holocaust.
Philipp is a friend of the protagonist, Johann Brenner, and they lead nearly parallel lives as the novel begins just after WWI. Both are medical students, eager to make a positive impact in their community despite the troubled times that Germany is experiencing. Their friendship becomes strained as an underlying current in their social class begins blaming the Jews for the problems.
Thus begins a study, not so much of the Holocaust exactly, but more precisely a study of the how studies in eugenics and the desire to rid Germany of "undesirables" was used to justify the killing of millions. Author Skopp analyzes how both men felt about eugenics and how it conflicted with their code as physicians. In Brenner's case, it becomes a question of status. As a trained physician he feels that he's due more distinction in his life, while Philipp as a Jew faces questions about how his beliefs in ending unnecessary suffering are twisted into a vindication of the evil the Nazi's perpetrate.
"Johann felt unable to dissect Hitler's categorical statements, to think of opposing arguments, to consider the implications of what he was reading. He had never been taught to think critically, to ask why and how an author might be trying to grab his mind and shape his convictions. His whole generation had assumed that if a statement appeared on the printed page, it must be true."
The novel is grim, but it displays significant restraint in not trying to exploit the subject for gratuitous horror. Two features especially stood out to me as noteworthy. One was that it provides especially detailed insight in the period between WWI and WWII and the context of pre-Holocaust years. Few books go back that far to find the links; they only start with WWII. I can only think of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief as one that lays the groundwork for the events, and even it doesn't go back as far as this novel. To me, this information was both new and critical to understanding how people were manipulated so thoroughly.
The other key to this novel is the rendering of the character of Johann Brenner. While we know from the start he's a villain (for lack of a better word), the story goes backward to explain how he came to that end. He's never a sympathetic character; as a reader there's never a point where he is especially appealing. Yet, rather than portray him as a stereotypical mad scientist, the novel proceeds to show how his flawed reasoning came to be. Additionally, a sense of suspense and tension is created because he's hanging around the Nuremberg Trials, incognito, while his peers are being tried for war crimes. As a reader, I wanted to know why.
Special thanks to CreateSpace for the Advance Review Copy.
Thanks too, to author Doug Skopp for his input this week.
To enter to win a copy of the book, leave a comment below. US only, ends Nov 20.
Tomorrow, a lighter side of reading will appear, with a review of the new book,
Show Up, Look Good.