Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Blooms of Darkness

When this wonderful new book by Ahron Appelfeld begins, 11 year-old Hugo is waiting for the peasant who is to take him to the mountains, where he will be safe from the Nazis. Other children are disappearing one by one, including his friends Anna and Otto, but Hugo’s peasant doesn’t come. Hugo’s father has been taken away to labor camp in one of the “actions.” Hugo and his mother sleep in the cellar, hoping this will keep them safe from the night raids of soldiers looking for Jews. When they dare a glimpse through the window, the see people burdened with packs so heavy they can hardly move, herded through the streets to the railways station by soldiers brandishing whips. Hugo recognizes people sometimes: classmates, neighbors, an aunt. Eventually, his mother decides she must take him to live with Mariana, a childhood friend who’s “fallen low.”

“What does ‘fallen low’ mean?” Hugo asks himself.”

“What is the meaning of ‘fate hasn’t been kind to her?' Hugo wonders.”

Mariana is a prostitute. Hugo and his mother escape from the ghetto through sewer pipes, in the dead of night, arriving at the brothel where Mariana works well after midnight. Within moments, Hugo’s mother is gone and Hugo is left to live in Mariana’s closet.

Of course, Hugo doesn’t know she’s a prostitute; he doesn’t even know what a prostitute is. He’s barely eleven. In fact, what made this book so compelling to me was that I felt like I was figuring everything out right along with Hugo. I lived in the dark closet with him, waited for Mariana to come with food and water. I heard the voices of the German soldiers and the sound of their boots in the hall. I felt the dangerous, irresistible comfort of Mariana’s bed and understood the love that bloomed between Hugo and this poor, wrecked woman who cared for him the only way she knew how.

This is not a young adult novel. Yet is has the immediacy, the rawness of emotion that characterizes the best YA’s. Reading it, I felt like I was growing up myself, the world cracking open—for better or worse, all around me. Some might feel Hugo’s world is too harsh for teenagers to experience, but I believe that the greater understanding of what love is and how it can save us it brings is well worth the pain of sharing his journey.