CM Magazine Review - Run Like Jager
Reviewed by: Donna Gamache
Kurt Schreiber can hardly believe his luck when his grade 12 German exchange lands him in Zethen, a town just east of Berlin where his beloved grandfather had grown up in the 1930's. Although Kurt had questioned his grandfather about his life in Germany, having received no answers, he is determined to clarify his grandfather's past if only to silence the horrible dreams he endures in which, as a German soldier, he kills helpless civilians. Then at his great-grandparents' gravesite, he meets an old man, Wolfgang Brandt, his grandfather's best childhood friend. As Kurt tries to escape the local bully and finds himself falling in love with Marta, Brandt's granddaughter, he slowly drinks in Brandt's war-time story about his grandfather's real actions during the war. As the war story climbs to a gripping climax, Kurt and Marta save the bully's brother from drowning during a vicious electrical storm. Kurt brings Wolfgang back to Canada for a visit to re-connect with his old friend, and he makes plans to attend university in Berlin.
Kurt is an appealing teen who loves to run for exercise and to stare down his demons, and he is determined to learn more about his past. He avoids fighting Peter the bully in order to uphold the exchange rules of no fighting, but he begins to wonder if he is really a coward. The support of Marta and another friend, Victor, helps Kurt to cope, but, of course, in true bully fashion, Kurt's saving of Peter's brother only gives him one leg up on Peter - the usual uneasy truce. Kurt's evolving love for Marta, based on true friendship, is entirely realistic, as is his struggle to connect with her reserved grandfather.
Wolfgang Brandt is a weary, clipped German, an 85-year-old man who has come to terms with his participation in the youthful Deutsch Jungvolk, the Hitlerjugend and the Wehrmacht (the regular German army). And what a story! His words bring to life Germany's hunger for success and power, the propaganda that hid Hitler's real goals from his countrymen, the careless advantages taken over young women, the horror of hand-to-hand infantry battles, and the bitter realization that Hitler had betrayed the German people. After six years of war, Wolfgang and Jager (Kurt's grandfather's nickname that translates to "hunter") desert and part ways: Jager to Canada and Wolfgang to their hometown to protect his mother and sister from the advancing Russians.
Bass captures perfectly the tone of two old German men - formal, reserved and polite to a fault. Marta and Victor are also strong characters with modern, yet European voices who are willing to make a new friend in Canadian Kurt. The novel alternates seamlessly between World War II and the present day, with Wolfgang's stories punctuated by Kurt's running, thinking, falling in love and avoiding the bully. The tension rises slowly but surely and then explodes in both stories. A satisfying ending will bring tears to the most jaded eyes as the two old men meet in the Calgary airport.
It is difficult for today's teens to even begin to understand the complexities of World War II and how ordinary people could be involved in such brutality. Bass presents this story with clarity and compassion, drawing the reader in through Kurt's curiosity and pain to an understanding of the real meaning of courage and cowardice. Run Like Jäger should be in the hands of any teen studying World War II.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller, who, unlike Kurt, didn't ask soon enough.