By Amanda DelaCruz
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
531 pages | Scribner First Edition, May 6, 2014 | Historical Fiction
Ever since I got my e reader a few years ago, I've missed the jacket covers. The snippets that lured me in, the potent imagery that stuck out on the shelves. Now, I find out a book is worth reading and I download an e book straight to my kobo instead. I didn't know much about All the Light We Cannot See when I opened the file, but I got quickly hooked. Only after I read it did I realize it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction - kind of a big deal.
So I got into this book without even knowing that it takes place in World War II. Now for me, this was a pleasant surprise. In elementary school I had read The Diary of Anne Frank and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and they both got me obsessed with reading any novel that had anything to do with living in an occupied country during WWII. It may have been too dark of a subject matter for a 12 year old girl, but it happened anyway. What really called to me in these novels was the inner strength that these people had to possess in order to survive or save others. We are spoiled in our lives today, there is no doubt. Back then, it was hard to be good. It was hard to make the right choice. There were consequences no matter what you chose. I grew up thinking I was weak, that I had a personality that people felt they could walk over, and reading about people who were willing to die for their beliefs made me feel like I could at least stand up for myself in my day to day life. I could be strong, in even the smallest ways.
There are two main characters in All the Light We Cannot See. There is Werner, an orphan prodigy who is chosen to be educated as one of the elite of the new era in Germany, and there is Marie-Laure, a Parisian girl who becomes blind but never less brave. Like all novels of this type there is a sense of foreboding. I cannot trust that any character will live until the end, because it is war, and war isn't fair. Because of this I am always a little more attached to the characters even though I don't want to be, because I know that any moment may be their last. I almost don't like to get my hopes up.
I FEEL LIKE HE COULD HAVE BEEN PART OF THE RESISTANCE INSTEAD OF BEING ONE OF THE PEOPLE WHO HUNTED THEM DOWN.
Werner was a very interesting character to think about. He was told early on that "a scientist’s work is determined by two things: his interests and those of his time." So he was a genius, and he was being raised as a Hitler Youth. I couldn't help but think of what he could have been if he was from any other country in Europe at that time. I feel like he could have been part of the resistance instead of being one of the people who hunted them down. Roles could have been reversed. It's a troubling thought - how much of our lives are dictated by where and when we are born, by the interests of the time? Because he was raised in Nazi Germany, because he was blond and blue eyed, because he was smart - he was chosen to be trained at Schlupforta - an academy where the goal was to eventually become an unquestioning, single minded, elite officer of the SS. It is easy to demonize the Germans during this time, to think that they all had choices that could have been easily made, but this novel shows that even the Germans felt trapped in the roles they felt they had to play.
EVEN CHARACTERS THAT BELIEVED THEY DIDN'T HAVE CONTROL OVER THEIR LIVES PROVED IN THE END, THAT THEY DID. IN SMALL ACTS OF DEFIANCE THEY SHOWED OTHERS THAT THERE IS ALWAYS A CHOICE, AND WITH THEIR LIVES THEY SOWED SEEDS OF DOUBT.
I'm someone who has read countless novels with strong female characters, girls who become women, who become heroes. But I really enjoyed reading about Werner because he is what most of us are - he is unsure, he is afraid, and he doesn't know if he is strong enough to act in accordance with the small protests in the back of his mind. It is that indecision, that hesitation, that seemed so authentically portrayed. To me he is almost like Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, some people hate her because she has appeared to be weak where her siblings are strong, but she does what most of us would have done in the same terrible situation. We are not always strong and brave, even if we'd like to believe we would be.
Marie-Laure, on the other hand, is brave, though when she is told so says she is because she has to be. She is one of those who embraces the adapt or die philosophy. Her blindness has made her more lovely. She is always wanting to know more, read more, do more. I loved reading from her point of view because her blindness made me appreciate what I take for granted in my everyday life. To hear how much she treasured the one braille book a year her father could afford to get her made me feel like my life is full of luxury. The writing style is so lyrical, so descriptive, Anthony Doerr was able to make a can of preserved peaches sound heavenly from Marie-Laure's point of view.
The secondary characters are complex and fully realized - even those who were long gone at that point in time, held such a presence. Their back stories are interesting and there is never enough time with them. I just loved this novel. I loved how Werner and his sister fell in love with learning, how the story lines all intersect around a radio, how Marie-Laure's uncle became better because of her, how her father helped her memorize the city and how Marie-Laure appreciated the textures of everything, even snails. I loved it even when the subject matter was hard to read about, because Doerr made me feel like I was growing up with these children, and experiencing their trials and triumphs alongside them.
I feel as if there isn't a lot of literature regarding the special academies in Germany at this time. The Book Thief briefly mentions them when Rudy was propositioned because of his athletic prowess. But all we got from that was that it was an extreme sort of a place, and not one the Steiner family felt a young boy should go. Rudy's father willingly went to the front lines and risked death in order to keep his son from attending. Here, Werner illustrates to us the whole process, from admission to release. It is haunting and disturbing, and I've read that there were some schools that were worse, that only 60% of the students could even survive the bullying and social pressure imposed upon them.
This novel is a reminder of how precious, beautiful, and hard life can be, that it is never too late to change, and that we can make the good choice, the right choice, even when we feel like it may be the end of us if we do. This is a story about “what the war did to dreamers.”
“THE BRAIN IS LOCKED IN TOTAL DARKNESS...IT FLOATS IN A CLEAR LIQUID INSIDE THE SKULL, NEVER IN THE LIGHT. AND YET THE WORLD IT CONSTRUCTS IN THE MIND IS FULL OF LIGHT. IT BRIMS WITH COLOR AND MOVEMENT. SO HOW, CHILDREN, DOES THE BRAIN, WHICH LIVES WITHOUT A SPARK OF LIGHT, BUILD FOR US A WORLD FULL OF LIGHT?” - ANTHONY DOERR