Tuesday 22 September 2020

Book review : Girl In A Smart Uniform - Gill James

Girl in a Smart Uniform is the third book in the Schellberg Cycle, a collection of novels inspired by a bunch of photocopied letters that arrived at a small cottage in Wales in 1979, giving insight into what life was like growing up in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. The other two books in the series are The House on Schellberg Street and Clara's Story : A Holocaust Biography, neither of which I have read. Girl in a Smart Uniform is apparently the most fictional of the three stories, but some characters, familiar to those who have read the first two books, appear again in this one, such as Clara Lehrs, Karl Schubert and Dr Kühn. It can be read and enjoyed even if you haven't read the first two books though.

The main character in the novel is Gisela, a young German woman, growing up in the years just before World War II breaks out. Keen to do her best and hopeful that Germany will be restored to its former glory, she joins the BDM - the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or Band of German Maidens, the girls' wing of the Nazi Party youth movement, the Hitler Youth. While she clearly looks down on Jewish people, she ultimately appears to be a good-hearted, hard-working girl.

While she rises through the ranks in the BDM, becoming a successful group leader, things are slightly trickier at home. Her mother's new lover is taking an unwelcome interest in her, her oldest brother Kurt has violent tendencies and her second much-loved brother, the kind and caring Eberhard or Bear, signs up as a soldier. On top of that, her new baby brother Jens seems to have issues and her teenage hormones are springing into life, seeking out the object of her heart's desires.

Halfway through the book, the narrative voice switches to Bear. Beginning in the same chronology as his sister, his account soon switches back twenty years and we see Gisela as a child, living through the post-World War I timeframe. Some fifty pages on, the narrative voice switches back to Gisela. While Bear's insights and stories are undoubtedly interesting, helping us to understand the larger historical picture and to see another side to Gisela, I found this plot structure to be a little clumsy.

In Gisela's final section, we can see her viewpoints slowly changing, until she turns her back on Nazi Germany. Her reasons for doing so are largely self-centred, as her relationship would undoubtedly be looked down on. Her racist opinions about Jews do not really seem to have shifted though, which left me feeling bad about the positive feelings I had towards her as a character. Maybe this reflects just how widespread anti-Jewish feeling was in society back then, but it bothered me.

It's an interesting book, showcasing the best and worst of human spirit in such a complicated time period. While I enjoyed it as an adult, I'm sure it would be loved by the young adult fiction market, as they would have much more to learn about life in Nazi Germany, some eighty odd years ago.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £10

  • Paperback : 260 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1910542423
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1910542422
  • Product Dimensions : 15.2 x 1.39 x 22.9 cm
  • Publisher : Chapeltown; Illustrated Edition (22 July 2019)
  • Language: : English


 Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.


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