Awards and honours
2016 IODE Violet Downey Book Award nominee
2016 Ontario Library Association’s (OLA) Forest of Reading Red Maple Award nominee
Alberta author, Karen Bass, focusses on a little known period of Alberta’s history in her 2015 YA novel – Uncertain Soldier. During WW11, the Canadian government imprisoned 38,000 German Prisoners of War (POW’s). The two biggest camps were in Alberta. Camp 133, near Lethbridge, Alberta had about 12,000 prisoners. Bass’s novel begins there in the fall of 1943.
Seventeen-year-old Erich Hofmeyer is captured after his naval ship is sunk in the North Atlantic. Life in the camp is tough for Erich. He is bullied by officers who support the Nazi regime, and taunted for his excellent command of the English language learned from his grandparents during his many summers in England. Repeated beatings send him to hospital, and eventually secure him a transfer to a logging work camp in northern Alberta’s Peace River country. Ten prisoners and ten lumberjacks make up the work force, and although the work is difficult and the climate bleak, Erich is safe until mysterious accidents begin to happen to the prisoners.
Erich’s story is told in alternating chapters with that of twelve-year-old Max Schultz, a first generation German Canadian living on a farm near the logging camp. Because of their German heritage, Max and his family are ostracized and persecuted by the townspeople, and Max is further bullied at school. Erich and Max’s stories come together in the logging camp where each finds a friend in the other, and bullying is a common fear. Erich is implicated in the mysterious accidents seriously injuring the prisoners, but his attempts to uncover the truth only throw suspicion onto himself. Erich confronts his fears and his tormentors when Max’s life is in danger. When they join forces, Erich faces up to his own racial biases regarding the sixteen-year-old First Nations youth who helps him find Max, acknowledging both his skills as a tracker, and his compassion.
Bass does an excellent job of uncovering the layers of many complex emotions: – prejudice toward German prisoners expressed by Canadians at home who had relatives fighting in Europe; – the bullying and hatred experienced by many families and school children who had been born in Canada but were of German heritage; – the emotions of young German soldiers who may have been conscripted to serve their country, but were not necessarily supportive of the Nazi regime.
Mature junior high readers, and senior high students will identify with Bass’s strong male characters whose loyalties are tested and with the complex friendships that develop as the plot unfolds. The novel explores themes of racial prejudice, bullying, the effects of war on citizens and prisoners, plus the counter balance of characters who see the inherent good in people regardless of their race or politics.