Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A short childhood

I read or listen to some books with a mounting sense of excitement, or anxiety, or anticipation -- isn't that what books are all about? But I listened to The Boy Who Dared with this sick feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach, as the outcome of this novel -- based on a true story -- was never in doubt. I was walking home from work as I neared the end, and I said out loud (sometimes audiobooks make you say things out loud ... in public!), "this is it." Helmuth Hübener is going to his death. At the age of 17, he was guillotined in a Berlin prison in 1942.

The Boy Who Dared is Susan Campbell Bartoletti's fictional retelling of Helmuth's story, which she had first (?) discovered during her research for her great nonfiction book: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. Adolf Hitler has pretty much shaped Helmuth's entire life, and when he was a younger boy he was a somewhat enthusiastic member (he didn't strike me as a joiner) of Hitler Youth; but he quickly sours on Hitler and National Socialism once its campaign to eradicate the Jews becomes clear. His older brother has secretly obtained a short-wave radio (illegal in Nazi Germany), and Helmuth begins listening to the BBC's German-language broadcasts. Inspired, he writes and -- with the help of two young friends -- secretly distributes them around Hamburg. At this point in the story, you are shockingly reminded that Helmuth is really just a child: Enthused by his success, he tries to recruit a fellow worker, about whom he knows very little. This worker turns him in and Helmuth is arrested by the Gestapo, beaten into betraying his friends, put on trial, and sentenced to death. He was the youngest person executed -- let me rephrase -- he was the youngest German opponent of the Nazis to be executed.

The novel begins on the morning he is to be executed (although he doesn't know this), and flashes back to how he ended up in the Plotzenzee prison. The flashbacks are interspersed with what happens on this last day. As I said, I was dogged by dread all the time I listened to this mercifully short novel. Yet, there was also considerable awe at the strength and conviction and courage of this remarkable young man.

David Ackroyd reads this audiobook. He makes an interesting choice to read the dialog with a slight German accent and the remainder of the book in (unaccented) American English. This is accomplished for the most part very smoothly -- he moves from one to the other without incident. I did occasionally hear what I interpreted to be American English in the midst of the German conversation, but Ackroyd's accent is so subtle that I may have been listening a little too closely for errors.

But more than consistency with the German accent, I am nonplussed by the switching from German to American English. It is an interesting narrator choice, and not one I'm sure I agree with. (I think I twisted myself into similar knots over the varying accents in Wild Girl, so I won't got any further here.) Ackroyd reads with minimal voicing, but I was always clear who was speaking. Some of his vocal characters were downright terrifying: Helmuth's despised stepfather, Hugo Hübener; as well as his Gestapo interrogators.

Accents aside, Ackroyd is fine narrator. That feeling of dread I attribute to him. His reading got me into Helmuth's tragic story more emotionally than any reading to myself might have done. Despite the obvious adult qualities of Ackroyd's voice, I never forgot that Helmuth was a smart, impulsive teenager flying all to quickly to his doom. Powerful stuff.

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