12 Weeks of Hot Summer Reads: Ashes by Kathryn Lasky

This is Week 3 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. Check back each Monday for a new review.

"Where they burn books, they will end by burning human beings." - Heinrich Heine

This is the opening quote in Ashes, the story of thirteen-year-old Gabrielle Schramm who is living in Berlin in 1932 during the turbulent days of Hitler's rise to power.

Hitler has not yet seized control when the story begins, but there are signs of what's to come. Sightings of Hitler's private army and his personal guard, the "SA" and the "SS," are becoming more frequent, as are attacks on Jewish neighborhoods, businesses and synagogues.

For the most part, Garbrielle is a typical thirteen-year-old girl. She goes to school, talks about movies and movie stars with her best friend Rosa, and occasionally gets in trouble at school for having her nose stuck in a book during math class. Gabrielle is a serious book lover. Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Mark Twain ... she devours them all. She's already lost two of her treasured books to her math teacher Herr Doktor Berg.

As the Nazi Party gains power, the changes in the outside world are brought home. Gaby's father, an astronomy professor at the University of Berlin and a close friend of Einstein's, faces increasing pressure over his support of "Jewish Physics." The Schramm's housekeeper Hertha becomes more vocal in her support of Hitler. Gaby's big sister Ulla begins dating Karl who is involved in the German Student Association, a group that supports Hitler. "Baba," a close family friend, social columnist, and a Jew, puts herself in increasing danger as she covers social events attended by high ranking Nazis.

Most jarring for Gaby is the discovery that her glamorous new literature teacher, Fraulein Hofstadt, is a passionate Nazi supporter who wants Gaby and Rosa to join the Hitler Youth. Even worse, the school librarian loses her job soon after defying Fraulein Hofstadt, and Gaby watches as the SA remove Herr Doktor Berg from school and force him into a van.

As Hitler's power becomes absolute, Gaby and Rosa witness a massive book burning near the University of Berlin. The following morning Gaby's family makes a difficult decision that will change all their lives forever.

Lasky does a great job of depicting what Berlin must have been like during this frightening time and of explaining the complicated political structure that eventually lead to Hitler's rise to power. For more, check out this Amazon.com interview with Kathryn Lasky and her web site.