20 February 2012

Book Review: The Berlin Boxing Club

New York : HarperTeen, c2011.
A title with boxing in the middle of it isn't exactly what I usually see myself picking up.  Berlin being the setting helped and I think that was the main reason I picked it up off the shelf.  I opened the cover and read the book description in the front flap and I took it home with me.

The first few chapters hooked me in the story about Karl, but my interest was doubly peaked when Karl started to talk about the art he had grown up around.  Some of what he described made me think of an exhibit I'd seen at a gallery in New York a while back.  Otto Dix.  The name was familiar.  I'd especially liked his drawings from the first world war.  I flipped to the sources at the back of the book and, sure enough, he referred to the exhibit I'd seen at the Neue Galerie, a museum for German and Austrian art.  Maybe I'm just really weird (it's okay, I know it's true), but this was very exciting to me.

I read more sources I found Wilhelm Busch, whom I love, and several others I wasn't familiar with (at least by the author's name).  Now I was reading for the story and my connection to and curiosity about these other elements as well.  

The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow is a bildungsroman sent in the 1930s.  Karl Stern is a young man with Jewish heritage who never thought of himself as Jewish because his family didn't got to synagogue and didn't really have any ties to the Jewish community.  Karl didn't think of himself as Jewish until the run-off from the ideology and policies of the new Nazi regime began to infiltrate his life.

When Karl came to an opening at his father's gallery covered in bruises, he attracted the attention of Max Schmeling, the former World Heavyweight Champion.  Schmeling bartered with Karl's father to get a painting in exchange for boxing lessons for Karl.  To the delight of Karl and the dismay of his father, Sigmund, a deal was struck.  Max left with the painting and Karl received his first training instructions which started him on his journey not only to becoming a great young boxer, but a journey which would shape his world views and his desires of the type of person he wanted to become.

The book highlighted the complexities of Max Schmeling's situation at the time and honored him for his real life heroics.  Although the situations in the book were fictional Sharenow referred to the two boys Schmeling helped in real life in an author's note.  This site details more about Schmeling and the boys he helped: http://auschwitz.dk/schmeling.htm.

The Berlin Boxing Club took me deeper in to the world of sports for that era than I had been before.  I've watched the Leni Riefenstahl film of the 1936 Olympic Games many times, but it was quite different seeing Germany, specifically Berlin, and witnessing Max Schmeling's triumphs and losses through the eyes of a young boxer.

I was moved by Karl's journey and his discovery of his father's past as Karl started to grow into a man.  This is a great historical novel and a great book about fathers and sons during an extremely difficult era.  Sharenow brought the time period and the environs of Berlin to life.  His writing kept me moving forward and I hated to put the book down.  I'd definitely recommend this young adult novel to anyone who loves a great story.

Here are the Schmeling vs. Louis fights you listen to on the radio with Karl:


1 comment:

Berry said...

That sounds like a very good story. I might check that out sometime.