Summary: In Germany after World War II, Wilm and his family live under Soviet rule. It’s essentially a police state, and payback for Germany’s role in the war is harsh, affecting innocent citizens who weren’t responsible for the atrocities that took place. When sixteen year-old Wilm finds out his sister Anneliese was raped by Soviet soldiers, he uses the knowledge as motivation to fight back against the Soviets and the Germans they have placed in control of the community. His stunts start out relatively harmless but escalate with time until it is difficult to tell what makes him different from the people he is protesting against. Aided by his friends Karl and Georg, when one stunt goes terribly wrong all three must leave town to escape punishment, but getting away and starting a new life might be harder than it seems.
Number of Pages: 287
Age Range: 14-16
Review: Like Urve Tamberg’s The Darkest Corner of the World, Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass provides a previously unexplored view of World War II and its aftermath.
I love how Bass makes me think. Wilm’s story explores the themes of power and powerlessness as well as the role of social ethics after an event as traumatising as World War II. Do Germany’s actions during the war justify the actions of the Soviets afterwards? While the Nazis were considered the enemy, all of those involved in World War II surely have abuses of power to answer for.
Anneliese’s rape may have been a catalyst for Wilm, but the desire for revenge on the revenge of the Soviets was long simmering before he found out what happened to his sister. Although by writing that statement I am in no way minimising what was done to Anneliese. Rape of women and girls as a power tactic is despicable and evil whether done in war or not, and I appreciated Anneliese’s mother and Ruth’s sensitivity to her pain, as well as Bass’ thoughtful portrayal of her journey. Anneliese was my favourite character, and though Wilm was convinced he wasn’t good at protecting her, I was glad she felt safe around him.
The sub-plot of Wilm’s father was especially intriguing to me. He actually was a Nazi and lost a leg in the war, wishing he had lost his life instead. I was fascinated by the father/son dynamic, and how Wilm’s father was feeling his powerlessness so acutely that seeing his son in a position of power was threatening to him. He drinks to cope, lashing out at Wilm and trying constantly to assert his dominance but Bass is such a masterful story teller that I ended up having empathy and sympathy for him and the way things turned out. The scene where Wilm and his friends have to leave town and his father completely supports him was gut-wrenching.
Wilm himself is a teen with a profound sense of responsibility. So many things that occur during the story aren’t really his fault, but he is his harshest critic and holds himself accountable even when he doesn’t need to. He also has a well-developed reflective nature which leads to powerful insights into his true nature and the situation of his friends and family. As a result, he’s an excellent choice for a narrator.
There’s a lot to love here and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what I could have written. But when it comes to the story of Wilm what I loved the most was how Bass was able to make each character complicated, hard to completely admire or condemn. They all seem to have complex motivations for their actions which made for an intense and thought-provoking read.
Both an eye-opening piece of historical fiction and a page-turning, suspense-filled story, Graffiti Knight is an enlightening read that’s hard to put down.
“Did I hate him? I didn’t think so, but I’d hated how he didn’t – couldn’t – stand up to those Schupos. Couldn’t physically stand up to them because of his leg; couldn’t mentally stand up to them either. I covered my face. Oh God, that was it. His body was his prison like Leipzig was everyone’s. He was even more powerless than I was. And I wanted him to be … the man he used to be. The one who had the power to protect his family. I hated how powerless he’d become.” – Wilm reflecting on his father from Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass, page 38
“I shrugged. I knew I should be scared, but it was like my brain was a series of rooms. The fear was there, but it was locked behind a door.” – Wilm from Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass, page 73
“Our family rarely touched, I realized. Why did we deny ourselves this … What was it? Trust. A hand on a shoulder said, ‘You can trust me.’ Letting the hand remain replied, ‘I know.’ There was no trust in my family. We kept to ourselves, afraid to share our hurts, afraid the hand would be knocked away.
We were idiots.” – Wilm from Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass, page 117
“He laid down the pistol. ‘You’re scared.’
I hesitated, then nodded.
‘You never act scared. Back at the farm, you shouted a string of orders and ran into the field like a crazy man. You could’ve been shot.’
‘That occurred to me after.’
‘But not during.’
I shook my head.
‘Were you scared when you were pulling those pranks in Leipzig?’ I shook my head again. His voice dropped lower. ‘But now you’re scared.’ He snorted. ‘There were times in Leipzig I was almost crapping my shorts., but I hid it because you were fearless. Do you have any idea how much more terrifying it is to have you admit you’re afraid?'” – Conversation between Karl and Wilm from Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass, page 264
“Looking at those photographs, one thing becomes perfectly clear: it doesn’t matter which side of a conflict a person is on, war makes victims of us all.” – Historical Note from Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass, page 287