Title: The Berlin Boxing Club [Indie Bound] [Amazon]
Author: Robert Sharenow [website] [twitter]
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Harper Teen
Source: Publisher (via independent publicist)
Parental Advisory: anti-semitism, criminal activity, death, violence
Teachable Moments: religious freedom, tolerance, bigotry
“We never talked about anything besides fighting, but that was okay with me. In fact I noticed that all Max ever talked about at the club was boxing. He never revealed anything about his personal life or his opinions. If politics ever came up, he diplomatically dodged voicing any point of view.”
Summary (from the publisher):
Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern has never thought of himself as a Jew. But to the bullies at his school in Nazi-era Berlin, it doesn’t matter that Karl has never set foot in a synagogue or that his family doesn’t practice religion. Demoralized by relentless attacks on a heritage he doesn’t accept as his own, Karl longs to prove his worth to everyone around him.
So when Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, makes a deal with Karl’s father to give Karl boxing lessons, Karl sees it as the perfect chance to reinvent himself. A skilled cartoonist, Karl has never had an interest in boxing, but as Max becomes the mentor Karl never had, Karl soon finds both his boxing skills and his art flourishing.
But when Nazi violence against Jews escalates, Karl must take on a new role: protector of his family. Karl longs to ask his new mentor for help, but with Max’s fame growing, he is forced to associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, leaving Karl to wonder where his hero’s sympathies truly lie. Can Karl balance his dream of coxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm’s way?
The Berlin Boxing Club follows a young boy as he endures the change in his family’s circumstances as the Nazi party rises to power in Germany. What makes this story somewhat different is Sharenow’s focus on an agnostic family with mixed heritage. While the Stern’s are of some Jewish decent they had stopped practicing their faith long before being a Jew was deemed practically illegal. As such, Sharenow is able to show the progression of hate at a much slower pace. He’s also able to allow Karl (whose features are described as less Jewish than most) to co-exist with those around him much better than the average Jew. While easier for him in certain ways it was difficult because he knew if word of his heritage became common knowledge he would be opened up to the treatment others were enduring.
This is where the emphasis of the story lies. In watching Karl delicately navigate this situation while watching his family lose the life they’ve always known. HIs father’s gallery was slowly losing patrons as well as artists, his mother slipped deeper and deeper into depression, and his sister (who looks more Jewish than he) is losing her naiveté as she is increasingly targeted by her classmates and other children her age. Karl is not without some difficulty of his own, he must hide a budding romance with a proper German girl and he must attempt to keep schoolmates who know he is Jewish from telling. Thankfully after a particularly vicious beat down by these same kids he is offered boxing lessons by the premier sportsman Max Schmeling who is a patron and friend of Karl’s father.
What struck me most about Berlin Boxing Club was it’s ability to provide perspective on Nazi-era Germany without gratuitously capitalizing on the most heinous elements of World War II. This is not to say that the book didn’t give a realistic portrayal of what it was like to be a child at that time because it did. It just happened to do it in a way that was high impact with low focus on genocide. Sharenow did allude to these events by placing in certain situations with the adults and also added in references to concentration camps by name and structure as well as the increasing presence of a police state. But the fact of the matter was this was a more psychological story about the impact of persecution on the Stern family and Karl in particular than it was a story about how things played out in history in general.
Sharenow did an excellent job of showing the escalation of hate and violence through the years. I appreciated that he started earlier in the time period so I was able to get more perspective of how things felt and worked on the front end. I liked that the focus wasn’t on the middle of the war where the worst atrocities are happening. I was able to experience the journey of how it all came to be which made the situations feel more relatable somehow. I also enjoyed that there was a fair amount of focus on non-Nazi story lines. Karl’s boxing allowed for a bit of a respite from what was an extremely depressing and horrible time in people’s lives. There was always the idea of Nazism looming around but the relationship (or rather hero worship) Karl had for Max and the positive changes his influence had on the boy’s life were a nice contradiction to the horrid conditions and situations he was experiencing everywhere else.
The characters of Berlin Boxing club were understated but powerful. Max Schmeling was easiest to interpret as he is the sold character of the story (outside of Hilter himself who was not a main focus) who was a real person from history. He was portrayed as steadfast, stoic and careful all things required of a man who was skirting the Nazi party at this time. The fictionalized characters showed the strength and endurance one would expect of those who were living lives as Jews in this time and place. Karl himself, was keen and shrewd, he knew how to keep to himself when necessary and when to capitalize on situations when most needed. His sister was sweet at the outset, worshipped her brother and then slowly as she encountered more bullying she became surly and distant. Karl’s parents were short tempered and firm as they tried to keep their children safe. It was clear they were more aware of what was really going on than the kids were (as it should have been) and were doing their best to keep things as stable as possible during a most unstable time. Lastly, the man from the Berlin Boxing Club were rough and tumble enough to give Karl the strength of character he needed to be challenged and to take on a leadership role both in the ring and eventually in his family. They were helpful when most needed and supportive at a time when there was little to be had.
A well rounded story, Berlin Boxing Club gives the reader (young or old) a realistic yet inspirational story of youth enduring prejudice. Not the least bit sugar-coated it allows for the infusion of a somewhat endearing story as an accompaniment to the harder and grittier content of the overall Nazi focus.