How does it feel to be surrounded by people who see you as the enemy? How do you protect yourself when you aren’t sure whom to trust? The protagonists of Uncertain Soldier, Karen Bass’s wonderful new novel for young adults, are grappling with these questions.
Erich, a 17-year-old German sailor in Hitler’s navy, finds himself in Canada after his ship sinks and he is captured. Max is the 12-year-old son of German immigrants living in the fictional town of Horley, Alberta. Their stories converge in 1943, when Erich, now a prisoner of war, is working in a logging camp near Horley.
Both boys share a deep feeling of isolation. Erich does not share his fellow POWs’ Nazi beliefs, but is nonetheless hated by any Canadian with whom he comes in contact. Max was born in Canada but his stern father’s loyalty to Germany causes suspicion when war breaks out, and Max becomes a target for the townspeople.
Erich and Max are well-developed characters, as is almost everyone surrounding them. Cora, a young Canadian girl whose relatives were killed in the Blitz, is torn between her hatred of the Germans and her attraction to Erich. The presence of Christmas, a young indigenous man, forces Erich and Max to realize that, despite their frustration with the blind prejudice of others, they harbour their own racial biases.
Bass does a fantastic job building and releasing tension throughout the novel. That war and violence were omnipresent in everyone’s lives during the period is made plain, despite the deceptively peaceful setting of a town far from the front lines. In the end, Erich and Max are pushed to their breaking points and have to decide how to respond. Will they refuse to engage, or will they stand up and do what’s right, despite the risks? Their feelings of helplessness and struggles with conflicted loyalties should be easy for any young reader to identify with.