Remember when I got all worked up about the World War II romance novel by an evangelical Christian about an SS Kommandant who falls in love with a blonde Jewish concentration camp inmate with the help of a magic bible, and then she converts to Christianity and the two live happily ever after? Yeah, well, there’s a new book that makes that one sound as respectful toward the Holocaust as Night by Elie Wiesel.
Wolf by Wolf, a just-published young adult novel, is about a 17-year-old Jewish shapeshifter who has escaped from a concentration camp and enters a lethal cross-continental motorcycle race so she can kill Hitler. (Not baby Hitler. Big Hitler.) It’s The Hunger Games meets The Diary of Anne Frank meets Teen Wolf!
Wolf by Wolf is set in 1956, in a dystopian alternate world in which Germany and Japan won World War II. Our heroine, Yael, is a victim of a Mengele-like doctor in an unnamed death camp who has experimented on her in an attempt to change her Jewish features and “tainted blood” into Aryan pureness. Now she not only looks German, but she’s also a shapeshifter.
Yael changes her body into that of Adele Wolfe, the only female victor of the Axis Tour, an annual, brutal, Battle-Royale-Rollerball-Deathrace-2000-y round-the-world motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo. Yael intends to win so she can dance with Hitler at the Victor’s Ball…and kill him. But she’ll have to fool not only the world, but also her fellow racers, including Adele’s twin brother Felix and the mysterious, hot, National Socialist Iron-Cross-wearing love-hate interest Luka. To remind her of her quest for revenge, she’s had five wolves tattooed on her arm, over the concentration camp numbers; each wolf is a reminder of someone she’s lost. The book is full of wolf, smoke, matryoshka, skin-shedding, and Valkyrie metaphors.
Now, on the surface, this sounds offensive and trivializing of the Holocaust. Indeed, there are a number of problems right off the bat:
1. Ah, if only the actual Holocaust victims were able to reconstruct their bodies on a cellular level and just stroll out of concentration camps!
2. Yael is a common Hebrew name today, but it was unheard of in pre-war Europe. (The author was clearly trying to evoke Yael in the Book of Judges, who kills the evil general Sisera. But this is like naming a Little House on the Prairie character “Jaden.” )
3. The science does not make sense: How come Yael can change her face and body and hair thickness and size but can’t shift genders or heal her own road rash?
4. Why does the use of German language in this book feel like a Saturday Night Live skit? The one in which white characters try to prove they’re down with Jimmy Smits by pronouncing “guacamole” and “enchilada” with the most exaggerated Latino accents possible? Everyone in Wolf by Wolf keeps yelling Scheisse and verdammt, which are apparently the only German words that exist. (The Japanese characters get no Japanese dialogue at all.)
5. If you are a shapeshifter who can’t heal yourself, don’t cover your brand-new tattoos with filthy gauze for the duration of a cross-continental motorcycle race because you will get sepsis and DIE.
Still, I read Wolf by Wolf cover-to-cover, because I wanted to engage authentically with it. In the last few weeks I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with people blasting books without even opening them. I did it myself with the Holocaust romance novel. I should not have. I apologize, and I won’t do it again. On Twitter (granted, Twitter is the echo chamber were outrage goes to spin itself in a circle like a demented toddler until it falls over, before getting up and having a lollipop and then finding something else to have a nap-deprived tantrum over), I’ve seen the most heinous name-calling, and if you’re going to call something “racist” or “anti-Semitic,” it’s not enough to have heard someone else’s snarling. (Look, I could have said “oh GOD no” about Proxy, the young adult dystopian sci-fi novel with a dark-skinned poor gay protagonist who evokes the Biblical concept of Jubilee, a time in which all slaves will be freed, debts forgiven and God’s mercy rained down on humanity, because hello, what? But I read it, and found it amazeballs.)
Wolf by Wolf is not amazeballs. While I enjoyed the racing, training and romance scenes, I had a lot of trouble with the Holocaust backdrop. The real Mengele was beyond repulsive. Playing on what we know of him to add extra resonance to “plus he turned a girl into a shapeshifter!” seems minimizing and hurtful to those who lost family members in the actual camps. Here’s Yael watching the Mengele character and a nurse in action:
They stood over a gurney, over a small, unmoving lump. Red was in rivers on the floor. Veining along the grout. Staining the edges of Yael’s stolen shoes [as she] tried not to look at the hand that hung limp off the gurney. Its fingers wilted and blue and so, so small.
It feels uncomfortable reading this within pages of a depiction of a hot guy’s abs.
Author Ryan Graudin is so skilled at depicting the horror of the historical Holocaust—as in the book’s wrenching opening scene, depicting a train taking a tiny child and her mother to the camps — that her use of historical reality as the backdrop to an exciting road-race coming-of-age story felt belittling of the actual horror. When Hitler shows up and starts flirting with Yael/Adele, I found myself reading while hiding my face with my fingers. I think Graudin’s intentions were honorable, but as with Sharon Dogar’s novel Annexed, the story of Anne Frank told from Peter’s perspective, I simply wasn’t OK with using powerful, laden, historical figures to blend history and fiction…and making the history serve the fiction.
I don’t know whether Graudin is Jewish. (The concluding goyish-sounding acknowledgment makes me think nope: “To my God—thank you for giving me this dream in the first place. Soli Deo Gloria.”) Lois Lowry, who wrote the greatest children’s Holocaust novel of all time, is not Jewish. Alex London, who wrote Proxy, does not have dark skin. I think there are ways to tell stories you haven’t lived. There are also ways to screw up. This is the latter.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.