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With the rise of the Berlin Wall, twelve-year-old Gerta finds her family divided overnight. She, her mother, and her brother Fritz live on the eastern side, controlled by the Soviets. Her father and middle brother, who had gone west in search of work, cannot return home. Gerta knows it is dangerous to watch the wall, to think forbidden thoughts of freedom, yet she can't help herself. She sees the East German soldiers with their guns trained on their own citizens; she, her family, her neighbors and friends are prisoners in their own city.
But one day, while on her way to school, Gerta spots her father on a viewing platform on the western side, pantomiming a peculiar dance. Then, when she receives a mysterious drawing, Gerta puts two and two together and concludes that her father wants Gerta and Fritz to tunnel beneath the wall, out of East Berlin. However, if they are caught, the consequences will be deadly. No one can be trusted. Will Gerta and her family find their way to freedom?
(384 pages; Release date August 25)
Wow. Just wow. I love Historical Fiction, and I'd been meaning to read more about post-WWII Germany, but I still couldn't believe my luck when I found out that one of my favorite authors would be writing a Historical Fiction set in post-WWII Germany.
A Night Divided is a relatively small book for the punch it packs. It's filled with terror and sorrow and agonizing dilemmas, but also love, friendship, and family. Gerta and Fritz are making huge sacrifices in their fight to unite their family and find the freedom they've only ever heard of. Their mother spends most of the book being a millstone around their necks, fighting to keep them safe the only way she knows how: by keeping them away from freedom. The first time I read the book I kind of hated her, because she was always trying to make her kids give up, give in, and let the government rule their lives. The second time through, however, I realized that she made some very valid points. In the real world, the choice between possible death in search of freedom and (probably) guaranteed life in oppression isn't quite as cut-and-dry as people like to make out. I might root for Gerta and Fritz, and cheer them on every step of the way, but that's partly because A Night Divided is just a book and I know Jennifer Nielsen isn't the sort of author to write the next The Book Thief. In real life, any pretenses at valor aside, I would have to think really, really hard about what to do. The fact that both Fritz and Gerta have files (meaning they've been marked by the government as future traitors) that basically ruin their prospects for the rest of their lives would definitely help tilt me towards leaving, but their mother didn't even know about the files. And since they kept her in the dark about that, I don't think they can really blame her reluctance to risk all of their lives to escape.
Speaking of "the dark," I love the imagery of light and dark that Nielsen uses throughout A Night Divided. Gerta reflects on themes of lightness, darkness, and the sun and moon, using them as metaphors for her situation in East Berlin. At the beginning of the book, when the wall first goes up and she feels the warmth of the sun on her back, she narrates: "This early morning light had not ended the long, dark night. No. For us, the dark night had only begun." Later she looks across the wall and reflects, "it somehow seemed brighter across the wall, as if the sun gave more of its light to the west."
Most poignant, though, is the way she tries to explain why people want to escape East Berlin: "You've seen the sun, Anna. Now that you have, could you ever be content with just stars for light? Would that be enough for you?" There are many more instances of this beautiful light vs. dark imagery throughout the book, but I'll leave them for you to discover on your own.
Nielsen's main characters are very different individuals, in unique situations and settings and all the rest. But the one thing they all have in common is a particular stubbornness in their nature, a certain penchant for breaking the rules. I do love this personality trait, and Nielsen has done it very well every time, but I would like to see her write a completely different character one day. It's Gerta's rebelliousness that is probably the only thing that bugs me with A Night Divided, because there's this separation created between her and her family (who bear "Papa's blood," which somehow makes them more resilient against the brainwashing) and everyone else. Later in the book Gerta references her father's training as the reason she and her brother are that way, but I would have liked a little bit more of a realization that it wasn't just "being Papa's children" that made Fritz and Gerta yearn for freedom. Gerta doesn't seem to realize that there's a difference between seeming content and actually being happy with your life. Some of this might just be the natural result of having a twelve-year-old narrator, though, so I didn't let it bother me too much.
But yeah, I am so happy with A Night Divided. It's even better than I'd hoped it would be! I already knew Nielsen was a talented writer from her other books (including Mark of the Thief, which is Historical Fantasy), but I never knew she could write such a beautiful, poignant novel. Historical Fiction is definitely a strength for her, and I really hope she writes some more books in the genre! In the meantime, I will definitely be recommending this one to readers interested in good books about the Berlin Wall - or just good books, period.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from Scholastic in exchange for an honest review.