Josef Jaeger turns thirteen when Adolf Hitler is appointed Germany’s new Chancellor. When his mother dies, Josef is sent to Munich to live with his uncle, Ernst Roehm, the openly-homosexual chief of the Nazi brown shirts. Josef thinks he’s found a father-figure in his uncle and a mentor in his uncle’s lover, streetwise Rudy, and when Roehm’s political connections land Josef a role in a propaganda movie, Josef’s sure he’s found the life he’s always wanted. But while living in Berlin during the film’s production, Josef falls in love with a Jewish boy, David, and Josef begins questioning his uncle’s beliefs.
Complications arise when an old friend of his mother’s tells Josef that his mother was secretly murdered by the SS due to her political beliefs, possibly on Roehm’s order. Josef confides in his Hitler Youth leader, Max Klieg. Klieg admits he knows a few things, but he won’t share them with Josef till the boy proves himself worthy of a confidence.
Conflicting beliefs war within Josef until he must decide where his true loyalties lie, and what he really believes in.
Review by Hayden Thorne
I always get all giddy and delirious whenever I come across genre LGBT YA fiction. It remains a tiny and overlooked niche, and I hope that it enjoys growing exposure and respect through an expanding list of good quality titles like Josef Jaeger.
Now I must admit that I was hesitant at first to read Jere’ Fishback’s novel, as I really don’t have the stomach for Nazi-themed fiction or film. I’ve watched several movies before, and I always fall apart before the end, a wretched, sobbing mess. Since reading is more involved compared to watching, a novel focusing on Nazi Germany (or just Nazis in general) makes me dread what might be waiting for me in between the pages. Have you seen A Love to Hide? It took me over a week to recover from that movie. Had that been a novel…
But these stories should never be ignored, and with the book also being young adult and a coming-of-age one, I got over myself and plunged in. And I’m glad I did.
The first thing you’ll notice when you read Josef Jaeger is how incredibly detailed Fishback is in his description of Nazi Germany. Bayreuth, Munich, Berlin, Nuremberg – people, places, food, everything. I’m not sure if he’s traveled to Germany before or if he’s done extensive studies on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, but his knowledge of the place and era is exceptional.
That said, it does take a while for Josef’s story to unfold. Yes, I love it when authors take their time in telling a story, and the novel has a certain sweeping, epic scope to it. Josef travels from place to place, meets several characters along the way, and in the course of his adventures, learns about the darker yet incredibly complex side of human nature.
The downside, however, is that there are a number of scenes that were info dumps. Fishback is very particular in his descriptions, but they do go overboard at times, stretching Josef’s credibility as the narrator quite a bit. First of all, he’s only thirteen, and the novel follows his adventures in the course of a year or a little over a year. He’s shy, self-conscious, and very, very naïve. Yet, every so often, he’ll describe certain places and objects with a knowledge that you can only expect from someone who’s older and an actual expert on certain subjects, i.e., such as the exact sizes of cobblestones. Another effect of this is a dragging down of an already slow-paced story, so much so that I found myself lightly skimming over a few places that were chock-full of descriptive details that didn’t really add to the plot.
There’s so much attention paid to the environment and to the side characters that the novel reminds me of David Copperfield in the way Josef’s character progresses from wide-eyed innocent to a more jaded (but wiser) young man in the end, though the novel ends with him being only a year older.
Like Dickens’ novel, Josef Jaeger gives us an incredibly diverse cast of characters, each of whom is wonderfully developed to the extent that you feel as though you’ve been reading about them since the beginning even if they’re only there for a really short time. From Josef’s opera singer mother to his storm trooper uncle and Ernst’s heterosexual kept boy and the actors in Berlin, etc., there’s no dull moment in Josef’s young life at all, and more often than not, he’s a captive audience, watching in awe as people strut around before him – chain smoking, having sex, beating each other up, protesting the growing persecution of the Jews, and so on.
Now because of that, just like David Copperfield, Josef Jaeger seems to be more of a peripheral participant in his story. He reports what happens around him, and more often than not, he’s less an actor in everything and more of a boy who’s being acted upon. His story takes place at a time when Hitler’s just beginning his campaign against Communists and the Jews. Through Josef’s eyes, we see the growing tension in Germany and the vile propaganda finding increasing traction among disaffected Germans.
While Josef reacts to these events, I still found him curiously detached, emotionally, except for those scenes involving his developing romance with David, a Jewish boy whose family’s slowly being deprived of their rights. It’s because of the heavy focus on the unfolding political events in Germany and how they affect the people around him that I think Josef’s development as the main character becomes secondary. He cries, he gets excited, etc., but we’re told of those, and he neither evokes nor explores deeper feelings.
To some extent, it helps us keep a certain level of objectivity toward a very harrowing development in world history. On the other hand, I found it a little difficult empathizing with Josef.
This heavy focus on environment and secondary characters also undercuts the conflict that Max Klieg, a Hitler Youth leader, brings into Josef’s life. If anything, this particular detail in the book is the most problematic to me. Max appears about a quarter of the way in, when Josef joins a Hitler Youth group. Then he vanishes, not to reappear till near the end of the novel, where he plays a significant role in Ernst Roehm’s undoing.
Because Max’s reapparance is so far into the book, I didn’t feel as though Josef’s sudden hatred of his uncle is convincing enough. This specific conflict happens too late, too suddenly, and too quickly, and Josef never really goes through a long process of confusion or re-evaluation that would’ve otherwise shown a clearer shift of attitude toward his uncle. Had Max deepened the doubt and suspicion in Josef early on (already planted into his mind by another character who vanishes), we’d have a more developed exploration of the conflicting nuances of human nature. I feel that the Berlin scenes involving the production of a Nazi propaganda movie, while interesting, could’ve been scaled back considerably in favor of a better developed dilemma involving Josef and the only family member he has left.
As a minor aside, I’m also a little baffled over Josef’s mother’s death. I’m not sure if I missed something, but Josef was told at the beginning that cocaine was responsible, and then later on, he says that it’s a heart aneurysm. *If you’ve read this novel and can clarify this, please do so in the comments. I could be mistaken and would appreciate an explanation.*
Even though I didn’t feel as much of an emotional connection with Josef, I did enjoy the other characters. David and his family, the actors at UFA, and especially Rudy, were the ones who stayed with me long after I finished reading the book. Poor Rudy’s the biggest tragedy in this novel. He’s the one who never gets a fair chance from the get-go, and while he does some pretty stupid things, I really didn’t want to see him end up where he is at the conclusion of the novel. I almost feel like writing AU fanfic just to give him a second chance.
That said, Josef Jaeger is a real treat, one of the more intelligently-written YA books I’ve had the pleasure to read. It’s thought-provoking, wonderfully dense, and well-researched, touching on one of the darkest moments in world history. Kudos to Jere’ Fishback for giving us a behind-the-scenes look into the rise of Hitler without sentimentalizing things or toppling into melodrama through his use of clean, concise language and Josef’s matter-of-fact voice.
Warning: Underage sex.