Where is the enemy? wonders six-year-old Sieglinde Heilmann, surveying the well-ordered streets of her neighbourhood in Berlin. The Führer has declared war on Poland, but the city is unchanged. There are no soldiers or planes in the capital: only new rules. Households follow the blackout procedures and stack sandbags against their cellar windows.
Later when bombs start to fall, the rules extend to conversation: talking in shelters is forbidden as a waste of oxygen. In any case, words have been regulated and rationed for some time. At school Sieglinde learns to separate what is good, proper and German from the defective rest. She and millions of others are protected from harmful language by the censorship office where her father works. Sometimes Sieglinde finds words cut from offending documents by her father. She keeps the snippets in a special tin: defeat, mercy, sorrow, Versailles, forgive…
Banned words also occupy the thoughts of Erich Kröning. An only child, he lives with his mother on a farm. Secretly he greets the foreign labourers in Polish – a language beneath his good German lineage. At times his stories seem to belong to another boy in a different place. His mother revises his memory in line with the official version and monitors the letters he sends to his father on the front. Throughout the war she prays to a bronze bust of the Führer, but in the end it is Erich who stays faithful to Hitler and leaves for Berlin to fight the invading troops. There the ten-year-old Erich meets Sieglinde and the two strands of this beautifully crafted novel converge.
‘The Wish Child’ draws imaginatively on historical details and documents to show the distortions of Hitler’s Germany from the perspective of two children striving to serve their leader. Striking descriptions of everyday objects – Erich’s prized collection of Führer cigarette cards, Sieglinde’s manual from the League of German Girls, propaganda posters – evoke the internal and external realities of growing up under Hitler.
Within the richly textured narrative there are many visible markers of exclusion and oppression. Censored thoughts leave blank spaces on the page, and the story is narrated by a character whose lost presence is gradually illuminated. The novel’s final sections reach backwards and forwards in time, revealing the end of Sieglinde and Erich’s joint story – and the identity of the absent narrator.
Victoria University Press, 2016, 384 pp.
About the Author
Catherine Chidgey has won numerous awards for her fiction including Best First Book at the New Zealand Book Awards and an Orange Prize longlisting. She first came to attention with her internationally acclaimed ‘In a Fishbone Church’, followed by ‘Golden Deeds’, ‘The Transformation’ and, most recently, ‘The Wish Child’. She studied creative writing, psychology and German at Victoria, and writes here about the importance of second languages. ‘The Wish Child’ was inspired by her encounters with German history as a student. She lives in Ngāruawāhia in the Waikato region of New Zealand.
Bookshelf / Bücherregal
In Germany, Christmas starts early with the arrival of St Nicholas who brings sweets, nuts and biscuits to children on 6 December. Traditionally presents are given on the 24 December when the main Christmas celebration takes place. Well-prepared children – and maybe adults – write a Wunschzettel or wish list in advance. Here are some suggestions …
Tickle My Ears / Nur noch kurz die Ohren kraulen
Translated by Catherine Chidgey
Gecko Press, 2016
It is time for rabbit to go to bed. Can you help him? This fun boardbook is for young rabbits who like to have their ears tickled before they settle down for a bedtime story.
The King and the Sea / Der König und das Meer
Heinz Janisch with illustrations by Wolf Erlbruch
Translated by Sally-Ann Spencer
Gecko Press, 2015
Tiny tales about a king who explores the world and learns more than he bargained for. The encounters between the stumpy monarch and his subjects – a trumpet, the rain, a dog and of course the sea – are illustrated beautifully in double-spread collages. The Parent Trap / Das doppelte Lottchen
Erich Kästner with illustrations by Walter Trier
Translated by Anthea Bell
Pushkin Press, 2014
Louise from Vienna has long ringlets and Lottie from Munich wears tight braids – but otherwise they are identical. They meet at summer camp and swap places: Louise leaves for Munich as Lottie, and Lottie sets off for Vienna as Louise… A new translation of a children’s classic.
Reckless III: The Golden Yarn / Reckless: Das goldene Garn
Translated by Oliver Latsch
Breathless Books, 2016
Fear, jealousy and desire: this is the third book in Cornelia Funke’s thrilling fantasy series about the Reckless brothers’ quest through the Mirrorworld.
Text: Sally-Ann Spencer
Copyright: Goethe-Institut New Zealand, 2016