My Brother’s Secret, Dan Smith

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It has been a long time since I have posted up here, and let me assure you that it’s not for lack of trying! Teaching is an exhausting profession, and as a result, I manage to read maybe 2 pages a week at home of the books that I really want to read, because I’m so tired that the words blur and I fall asleep. However, at school, we have 10 minutes silent reading at the start of our lessons for KS3, and now that the behaviour and expectations are clearly set for these year groups, I’ve started to be able to read in thsoe times. It’s not enough time to read the books I love, such as the Wheel of Time sequel I’m still plodding through, so instead I’m choosing the books that we might recommend to KS3 and am starting to read those in that time. The benefits are clear. Firstly, it will give me more ability to recommend books to pupils, as these books are aimed at them. Secondly, I would love to one day write for this age group and it’s good to get as much experience as possible in what they read. And finally, they are light enough that I can read them without being too invested.

That said, when My Brother’s Secret got good, I did have to extend the 10 minutes silent reading to 15 minutes!

Hopefully, in doing this I’ll be able to post up here more often, as I work my way through books that are easier for me to read.

My Brother’s Secret is based in WW2 Germany. Karl is a good boy – he attends his Hitler Youth Meetings and even receives special commendation for his achievements there. But when his father is killed at war, and Karl moves to live with his grandparents, he notices some discrepancies between what the government are telling him and what the reality is. When the allies drop leaflets in his small town, criticising Hitler, Karl becomes involved in a way that risks his own life, but mostly that of his family as well.

I started writing this thinking that it is actually rare to find good books in English based in Hitler’s Germany, but actually between The Book Thief and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, actually, My Brother’s Secret was pretty average. It was good to see a male protagonist not immediately disillusioned with Hitler. His participation in Nazi mandated activities is willing and he even handed his own brother in for seeing him hit a member of the Hitler Youth, a secret which is only revealed half way through the novel. Karl is a ‘good German’ – and I feel a very realistic portrayal of what it was like for young men living through the war. There is very little mention of the concentration camps and the horros of the holocaust, which is again very realistic, because they were hidden from normal people. Smith does a good job of creating a sympathetic Nazi, whose conscience eventually develops awareness of what is wrong in his world.

Telling stories such as this through the eyes of a child is always valuable, because you have sympathy for the character immediately, because he is not old enough to truly understand the extent of Nazi politics. Smith writes his enthusiasm for the party with sensitivity but realism, drawing on what it is that made the Nazis so popular and coherent to create a picture the world the young Nazis wanted to build. Karl’s secret, that he handed his brother to the secret police, is especially poignant because Karl truly had good intentions – he wanted his brother to be part of the bigger picture. Karl’s grandparents are also threatened when it is revealed they’ve been keeping Karl off school. His perception of them as good Nazis is altered when he learns they attend only the bare minimum of meetings and have no passion for Hitler. Smith shows that transition from the blind faith of a child in those in power to the disillusioned beliefs of a young man with skill and power.

Overall, the novel is a valuable historical tool, which helps children to see the difference between blind obedience and conscious thought. The characters are well developed and the back stories and evident but not overdone. A good read, with some very clever moments, I would recommend this for any child interested in the politics and social aspect of war.

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