Saturday, July 6, 2013

Book Review: Prisoner B-3087- Alan Gratz [with Ruth & Jack Gruener]

First off, this book was recommended to me by our technology coordinator and librarian Leah Fullenkamp, and I had not intention of reading it as quickly as I did.  I normally listen to books, as I've said before, but could not find this one on audio.  I checked it out from the library for my wife to read because she likes to get suggestions and tries to stay current on young adult literature, since that is where she has her teaching license.  Anyway, I ended up stealing it from her and started reading it while we were watching TV one night and I finished it in two days.  This is rather quick for me because of how infrequently I actually read books, yet alone young adult books.  Admittedly it is fairly short.  The book was very good but has left me with mixed feelings.  Also, there are some minor spoilers coming up, but nothing that common sense or reading the inside jacket doesn't give away also.  If you intend to just read the book and not the jacket, then you may want to stop here.
The jacket sleeve points out that this is based on the true story of Ruth and Jack, but really it is Jack's story with Ruth thrown into the mix during the Afterword.  Also, the sleeve makes it sound like his name change from Yakov to Jacob to Jack is important or somehow critical to the book, and it is not- seriously it is about one sentence in the afterword- to make immigrating to America easier he chose an American name.  Also, he visits 10 concentration camps, which means you know that along with the length of book left that like many Holocaust books he has to survive.
Anyway, onto my criticisms of the book.
  1. It needs a map.  It would be easy to include and make following the story so much better.  If you don't care for the map, then oh well, and if you'd like it then there it is.  As it was I had to look up a map and someone else had the same complaint and made their own.  Also, I made my own using Google Earth as a part of the Mapping with Google course that I took shortly after finishing the book.  The "Death March" routes are straight lines and there is slight guesswork on a couple of the sites.  Additionally, the routes of travels between locations are not included [I'd love to find and trace the old road and rail lines, but I doubt that is possible to do with complete accuracy, or that I will take the time to do it; but if someone else is up for the challenge let me know (e-mail: eric dot sully at gmail dot com and I'll share the Google Earth File with you in such a way that you can edit the original)].
  2. I don't want to belittle his sufferings, but there are times where it seems like in-order to push for the nice-neat, or big-and-round, number of 10 truth was stretched or exaggerated.  For example, Auschwitz-Birkenau was one camp, but they were listed as to separate back-to-back places.  Also, occasionally a work site was run by one camp, but listed as another [although, they seem to decide if it was a new camp based on whether he slept there are at the main camp at night]. 
  3. I did not live these events, and I'm sure day-to-day in the camp was probably pretty mundane  and one day ran into the next, but after the first camp it seems to be one chapter dedicated to coming to the camp, one chapter dedicated to a significant event that occurred in the camp, and then one chapter about leaving the camp- although some had these merged into two or even just one chapter, per camp.  Having said that the last 5 camps were all in 1945 from January to April so maybe not much occurred at them after all.
  4. The book really didn't include Ruth's story, although she has written her own autobiography, which I hope to read some day.  I'm not sure why the cover and the jacket describe it as her and his story, it is all his, because she was there for less than 3 paragraphs and all in the epilogue and afterward.
  5. This is probably the point that bugs me the most.  At the end of the book, in the Afterward, it is mentioned that liberties were taken with the novelization of the book and that some events (or more especially their timing) were fictionalized.  I noticed this when before or after several main incidents there were dreams that seemed to line up perfectly the night before or after the event.  This seemed a little fake or forced and led me to suspect that the truth was maybe being bent.  Also, for some of the camps the stories included were generalizations of other Holocaust survivors' time in the camps [this stood out especially after looking up more about "The Witch of Buchenwald" who according to Wikipedia left there in 1941 to run another camp in Poland, which was before he was there in '43 or '44]. 
     The problem with taking these kind of liberties and then not mentioning it until the end is that it left a bad taste in my mouth because it has caused me to question so much of what I read in the book.  Since the jacket (and the length of the book) made it obvious that he visited 10 camps and 2 death marches it seems to me that it would make more sense to up front say some of this has been fictionalized, especially the timing of events within the camp.  Then certainly at the end include the clarification of which parts were totally real and fictionalized.  Because I'm all for poetic and artistic license, but please set ground rules first, not at the end.

     Having said all of this, do not get me wrong- this was a great book.  You know he is going to make it, but he was relatable.  His losses were devastating.  And whether we say he went to 6 camps and several work sites or sub-camps within them or 10 camps, his trials and suffering were more than any twenty, maybe one hundred, people should have to go through in their lifetimes.  One review I read of the book, while looking for a map complained that it sounded like someone giving a speech or just telling disjointed little stories, rather than a novel.  I certainly see where that perspective is coming from, but I appreciate getting the story in writing before he passes because the generation that went through these horrible events is passing away.  Furthermore, the main thing that he and his wife do now is go to schools around New York City and tell their story of being Jews in Poland and concentration camps during World War II, so a lot of his story should be expected to sound like parts of his speeches just written down.  Personally, I'd rather have un-dramatized stories recorded, rather than fictionalized stories because they sound better.  The story was fast-paced and gripping, even if the format was a little repetitive.  Also, I spent a lot of time reading Wikipedia articles about World War II and specifically the concentration camps after reading this book.  The last time I read one like it was probably Night by Elie Wiesel my sophomore year of high school.  It certainly sparked in me the desire to re-read that book.
I think part of why I liked it so much, is because it is real.  I don't know if Lois Lowry and Number the Stars is to blame for the popularity of the historical, World War II Holocaust fiction genre, but it certainly is the cause for me being blasé about it.  I had it read to me in elementary (which means I also read it myself before the teacher was able to finish it), re-read it on my own the following summer (because I did not have good advise on how to find new books and so I frequently re-read books or exhausted what a single author I liked had written- a longer rant on this later I suppose), and had to re-read it at least two more times in my school career because literature books read was not communicated well across grade levels, yet alone between school buildings.  Not to mention, at least two other holocaust fiction stories [including a work of historical fiction about the French Resistance- (can anyone help with the title?)], Maus on my own (but at the recommendation of a teacher) the Diaries and Play of Anne Frank, Night [which I've already mentioned], a Holocaust research project (including Project Paperclip and Mengele), and countless movies [including Swing Kids, Saving Private Ryan and usually any movie based off of these books] to compliment this stream of stories.  Not-to-mention the large number of novels set during that time period, or having morals that were inspired by the authors' connection to WWII.  I think almost every teacher 6th-10th grade did a holocaust unit in some way, except for maybe 9th grade.  Way too many of which were historical fiction and so it made it easy to become jaded or indifferent to the real events that happened.  I think when it comes down to it, the real stories might be less vibrant, but are much more compelling and make for a more impacting read.  I thought briefly about trying to read a lot more, but then came across the overwhelming list on this blog and thought I'd wait for more personal recommendations about what books I should read instead.

PS- Thanks for Leah for the recommendation and to my wife for being consumed by A Memory of Light and unable to read this book at the same time.  Also after I finish Gatsby, Night will be the next classic I read, then I'll probably finally bring myself around to reading Pride & Prejudice.

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