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Wulffson, Don Soldier X. Viking, 2001. [244p]
ISBN 0-670-88863-X   $15.99    Gr. 7-10
Reviewed from galleys

As World War II moves into its final months and German defeat is all but inevitable, the Wehrmacht launches a desperate effort to hold its eastern line. Narrator Erik Brandt spends his sixteenth birthday on board a troop train headed to the Russian front, where he and other teenage German conscripts will ostensibly relieve exhausted veterans-but more probably become cannon fodder in the bloody barrage.

Erik has no enthusiasm for soldiering, but he believes that he's serving in defense of family and Heimat and that his facility in Russian language, acquired from maternal relatives who immigrated illegally to Germany, will assure him a cushy job as interpreter. Within hours of arrival at Tarnapol, though, Erik crouches in a front-line trench, facing a major Russian offensive. One boy after another falls in action, and a gravely wounded Erik finds himself behind enemy lines. His allegiance to the Wehrmacht is now another casualty of war; he exchanges uniforms with the corpse of a Russian soldier and begins a dangerous charade that is the only hope for saving his skin. During his hospitalization Erik employs every trick he can muster, feigning amnesia and casting each word and gesture into credible Russian, to convince patients and staff that he is the Aleksandr Dukhanov named on his purloined identity papers. Nicknamed "X," he succeeds so well that he eventually wins the affection of beautiful nursing aide Tamara, but his ruse collapses when he utters "Ach Scheisse!" in Tamara's hearing. She is horrified to realize she's put her trust in the enemy, and Erik knows his life now hangs on her discretion. Before they can begin to repair their sundered trust, they are forced to evacuate and cast their lots together as refugees. As they negotiate the shifting lines of another German advance, their survival depends on X/Erik's bilingual skills and his now well-honed knack for deception.

Wulffson bases his fictionalized tale on "the lives of two very remarkable people" whose identities he does not disclose, and his graphic descriptions of battles and perilous escapes are searing and authentic. Just as artillery bombardment obliterates familiar landscapes, the war ravages certainty and trust and renders humans unreadable. Erik and fellow recruits hope the emaciated Jews who serve them in the mess line are truly criminals: "Because if they are not, then we are." German sergeant Dopelmann, so severely disfigured that he disgusts his young charges, is actually a philosophy teacher who zealously turns his pedagogical skills toward keeping boy-soldiers alive. Ethnic heritage does not predict political affiliation. Tamara learns Erik is not the Nazi party member she believed all Germans to be, and Erik learns that Tamara is a staunch anti-Stalinist. Erik himself, the ironic embodiment of ambiguity, is twice wounded in friendly fire-by a German officer who mistakes him for a Russian, and by an American soldier who believes he's accidentally wounded a civilian.

In concluding his tale, Erik makes it clear that armistice does not bring tidy peace to war's survivors. He is now a retired history professor living in the United States, and he maintains his deception, allowing curious students to assume his war injuries were sustained while fighting the Nazis. His wife, Tamara, convinces him "to put into writing what happened. With patience, she explained to me the reasons why she believed it had to be done." Erik declines to name these reasons, however, and Wulffson tacitly charges the reader to attribute purpose to Erik's narrative. Is this an urgent anti-war exposŽ, deriving interest from the viewpoint of "the enemy"? The unburdening of an old man's crushing, perhaps shame-filled memories? Or is it at last a reclamation of identity-the bold decision to lay dark lies to rest?

-- Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Big Picture Image
March's Bulletin cover illustration by Lara Tomlin
from Soldier X,
Copyright 2001. Used by permission of Viking Children's Books.



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