TITLE: Josef Jaeger
AUTHOR: Jere M. Fishback
PUBLISHER: Prizm Books
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RATING: 4½ out of 5 stars
Josef Jaeger turns thirteen when Adolf Hitler is appointed Germany’s new Chancellor. When his mother dies, Josef is sent to Munich to live with his uncle, Ernst Roehm, the openly-homosexual chief of the Nazi brown shirts. Josef thinks he’s found a father-figure in his uncle and a mentor in his uncle’s lover, streetwise Rudy, and when Roehm’s political connections land Josef a role in a propaganda movie, Josef’s sure he’s found the life he’s always wanted. But, while living in Berlin during the film’s production, Josef falls in love with a Jewish boy, David, and Josef begins questioning his uncle’s beliefs.
Complications arise when an old friend of his mother’s tells Josef that his mother was secretly murdered by the SS due to her political beliefs, possibly on Roehm’s order. Josef confides in his Hitler Youth leader, Max Klieg. Klieg admits he knows a few things, but he won’t share them with Josef till the boy proves himself worthy of a confidence.
Conflicting beliefs war within Josef until he must decide where his true loyalties lie, and what he really believes in.
“Josef Jaeger” is a coming-of-age story about a young teenager, Josef, growing up in Germany on the cusp of World War II. After his mother’s death, he moves in with his uncle, Ernst Roehm, and Roehm’s lover. With Roehm’s approval, Josef travels to Berlin to shoot a Nazi propaganda film and while there meets David, the son of a Jewish doctor. A large part of the story deals with Josef’s sexual awakening, and potential readers should be aware that while the scenes aren’t descriptive, sex does play a very important role in the book.
I found Josef’s character to be likable, though at times his lack of self-restraint bothered me. Then again, with his being only thirteen, his sexual actions with different characters were very believable, even if I personally did not condone them. I could understand his motivations, which the author made very clear, and one can see Josef’s growth as the story progresses. In the beginning of the story, he speaks of how he isn’t one of the Confident Boys at his school, those popular kids whose athletic prowess and swaggering confidence makes them stand out among their peers, but by the end of the book, Josef has grown into a Confident Boy of his own, with his own feelings and beliefs, and a promising future ahead.
The book is peopled with a variety of interesting characters, from Josef’s surrogate family to the film’s cast with whom he works. One person I wanted to like and didn’t was Rudy, Roehm’s young lover. I liked him at first, but as the story went on, I didn’t much care for his duplicity in character. The more Josef (and thus, the reader) learned about Rudy, the less I liked him. I felt he was an opportunistic jerk who was true only to himself, and his lack of commitment to anyone else bothered me greatly. I wanted Roehm to have invested in a more sincere lover, not one whose intentions changed with the wind. By the end of the story, I felt Rudy deserved what happened to him.
Of all the characters in the book, I was most surprised that my favorite turned out to be Ernst Roehm. It’s very difficult to write a fictionalized account of a historical figure, particularly one readers are predisposed not to like, given his notoriety, but Fishback did an excellent job of humanizing Roehm for me. I found myself saddened by his circumstances and, given the documented outcome of the Nazi regime, I hadn’t thought it possible to make me sympathize with one of the movement’s famous leaders. While I would’ve liked a different ending for Roehm, his downfall was imminent and well conceived within the circumstances of the story.
The book’s ending seemed a little abrupt, but upon further reflection I found it believable given the fact that the main character was a young boy uninterested in politics. The sudden turn of events mirrors the confusion and fear many Germans must have felt during that volatile period in their history. I cheered Josef on at the end, knowing his future lay with the boy he loved.
The accuracy of detail brings 1933 Germany alive for the reader, and the motley crew of characters add human faces to the names we’ve read about in our history books. Those interested in historical fiction, particularly young adult stories or romances, will thoroughly enjoy this book as much as I did.