There has been a lot of estrogen in my reviews of late. In a summer of sassy female sleuths, The Berlin Boxing Club was a nice change of pace.
In 1930s Berlin, Karl Stern is uneasy about the growing resentment towards the Jews, but feels it has little to do with him. Although he is Jewish, his parents have raised him in a non-religious household. He doesn’t even look Jewish, at least not according to the physical attributes exaggerated in Nazi propaganda. But after a brutal hallway attack, Karl realizes he isn’t safe. Fortunately, his father is good friends with Max Schmeling, the celebrated German boxer. Max agrees to train Karl at his own exclusive boxing club. As Max works towards his goal of becoming Germany’s youth champion, the political situation becomes more and more dangerous and Max learns that in uncertain times, strength of character is more important than physical strength.
This was an excellent glimpse into the climate in Germany during the years leading up to the war. Karl is a well-rounded, engaging protagonist, balancing typical teenage struggles (too skinny, too much acne, resentment towards his aloof father, frustration with his unstable mother) with those conflicts particular to being Jewish in Berlin in the late 1930s. In addition to his love of boxing, Karl loves to draw and spends hours pouring over comic books and creating his own cartoon strip to amuse his younger sister, Hildy. His long-time crush, Greta, finally notices them and for a short time, he feels the rush of first love.
Robert Sharenow has a clean, unfettered writing style that suits the story, which has a lot of ground to cover and many themes to touch on. He doesn’t shy away from the more brutal aspects of life for the Jews under the Nazi regime, but the scenes of violence add depth and gravity to the novel. The book opens with Karl’s chilling encounter with a couple of thugs from school, a scene which is echoed later on when an angry mob breaks into the gallery where he and his family have been living during Kristallnacht.
In my experience it can be difficult to find realistic fiction that appeals specifically to boys in the 12+ age range. In the case of historical fiction, most war novels focus on a young man in battle or working undercover. Karl fights many battles, but on the home-front and inside the ring. His experiences, though harrowing, feel closer to home for today’s teenager which is what makes the book so appealing and accessible.
The Berlin Boxing Club is available now from HarperTeen, and imprint of HarperCollins.