Author: Kathryn Lasky
Length: 318 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
Thirteen-year-old Gabriella Schramm leads a privileged, upper-middle class life in Berlin. Her father, an astronomer, works alongside the likes of Albert Einstein and several of her parents’ friends rub shoulders with the social elite. But the year is 1932 and things are changing. Gaby and her liberal family watch with horror as the star of the extremist right-wing Nazi party climbs higher and the whole city descends rapidly into madness.
Ashes is not a great book, but it is an entertaining one. To readers outside the target audience (pre- and young teens) who have studied the period in more depth, Kathryn Lasky’s heavy-handed history lessons may grow somewhat tiresome. Its greatest strength, however, is its tone. It captures Gaby’s—and thus any reasonable person’s—dread as the Nazis’ authoritarian state falls into place. Lasky portrays feeling of being trapped, almost of suffocating, very well: trapped in Gaby’s Nazified school, in Berlin, in Germany.
I felt something collapsing in me. No, not just in me. I looked around the table at everyone’s faces. It was that sensation again, not of a vacuum, but of the black hole of a dying star with a gravitational pull so strong nothing would escape. Not even light.
Most of the characters were sympathetic and likeable, if a bit too likeable sometimes. I liked “Uncle” Hessie in particular. Unfortunately, the Nazi sympathizers—the Schramm’s maid Hertha, for instance—were painted with a rather broad brush: anywhere from mindless acolytes to sinister would-be criminals. The only exception was her sister’s boyfriend, Karl. Perhaps this can be attributed to Gaby’s first-person narration, but it could have been handled a little better nonetheless.
Still, Gaby was a decent and interesting narrator. I liked that, though she loved reading, it wasn’t the sole focus of her character—and there were genuinely touching moments throughout the book. Gaby’s old math teacher, Doktor Berg, returns the books he’d caught her reading in class to her under SA guard.
“Are you going someplace?” I stammered.
“Yes, I am no longer to teach here.”
“So you’re going to another school?”
The two SA men snickered and barked, “Auf geht’s!” Get going.
They spun Doktor Berg around, shoving him ahead. But he turned back and shouted over his shoulder.
“Buck! Buck! I loved that dog! What a dog!”
As a whole, Ashes is a tragic and appropriately frightening novel with a charming cast of characters. I think it would work well as an introduction to the Nazi period for younger students, especially if paired with a book such as Number the Stars.