Friday, July 15, 2016

The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain by John Boyne

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a heart-rending story of lost innocence in the face of terrible evil. It is the story of one boy's corruption at the hands of a powerful ideology that brought ruin to the Europe over seventy years ago.

Pierrot Fischer lived in an apartment with his German father, Wilhelm, a survivor and soldier of World War I and his French mother Emelie. Their family was together until Pierrot's father left in 1933 a few months after Pierrot's fourth birthday.

When Pierrot was very young his father taught him to speak German and would often carry him on his shoulders while pretending to be a horse. His father was very musical often entertaining people with folk songs. Pierrot was also able to speak French which he learned from his mother. Pierrot's father suffered from terrible nightmares which caused him to wake screaming in the night. He drank a great deal to help him forget what he experienced during the First World War.

Pierrot was best friends with a Jewish boy Anshel Bronstein who lived on the ground floor apartment of their building on Avenue Charles-Floquet.The two boys were born within weeks of one another. Anshel was deaf so the two boys developed a sign language that allowed them to communicate.

His father worked as a waiter for M. and Mme Abrahams in their restaurant and complained frequently about the poor tips from Parisians and how badly the Abrahams treat him. But he specifically blamed Jewish patrons, accusing them of being greedy. When Pierrot reminded his father that his best friend Anshel is Jewish, his papa told him that "Anshel is one of the good ones..."

Pierrot's mother and father begin to quarrel as his drinking becomes a serious problem. Shortly after his fourth birthday, Pierrot's father loses control, smashing the dishes and beating his mother unconscious. His father leaves the family and weeks later they learned that he died after falling beneath a train travelling from Munich to Penzberg, Germany.  Pierrot's maman goes to work for the Abrahams as a waitress and for the next three years their life is simple and happy. Until 1936.

In 1936, Pierrot's mother coughs up blood into a handkerchief on her birthday and days later a coughing spell brings up more blood. Emelie is taken to Hotel-Dieu de Paris hospital where she dies shortly after. Orphaned, Pierrot is sent to an orphanage by Mme Bronstein who wants to care for him but does not have the money to do so. She sends him to an orphanage in the city of Orleans that is run by sisters Adele and Simone Durand.  Pierrot must leave behind his beloved dog, D'Artagnan whose care he entrusts to Anshel.

Seven-year-old Pierrot is welcomed into the orphanage by the kindly sisters who tell him his stay will probably not be long as most children are placed with families. Pierrot has trouble making friends and is bullied by one boy in particular. Hugo had lived at the orphanage his entire eleven years. Pierrot never would admit that Hugo was the one bullying him. When a serious fight occurs between Pierrot and Hugo, the true identity of the bully is revealed by the Durand sisters. Pierrot does make friends with a girl named Josette and they their spend time walking around the grounds of the orphanage.

Eventually Pierrot leaves the orphanage and travels to Germany, having been taken in by his father's sister, his Aunt Beatrix. It turns out that Beatrix is the housekeeper for Adolf Hitler who has taken over the Berghof, a large mansion located at in the Obersalzburg of the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, Germany. She has been in her position for a little over two years. In the morning of the first day at the Berghof Pierrot meets Herta Theissen the second most senior maid, Emma who is the cook, Ute the senior maid and Ernst the chauffeur. Pierrot doesn't know who the master and mistress of the house are until Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun arrive. Desperate to belong and trying to make sense of his place in a world upended by war,; Pierrot develops a close relationship with Adolf Hitler who proceeds to draw the young boy into the Nazi world. As he becomes a spectator to Hitler's inner world and discovers the true nature of Beatrix and Ernst's activities, Pierrot must decide where his loyalties lie. It is a choice that will forever change his life.

Discussion
The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a tragic novel which portrays the gradual corruption of an innocent child by Nazi ideology. The novel's main character, Pierrot matures from a seven year old child into a young man of sixteen over the course of the story. His journey mirrors that of millions of young German children who grew up during the Nazi era and who were indoctrinated with ideas about racial purity, a global Jewish conspiracy and Germany's defeat in World War I. Although everyone experiences a natural loss of innocence that occurs during the transition from childhood into young adult years, Pierrot's transition is from a boy who hates cruelty to others and even animals to a young adult who is ready to sacrifice even those dear to him for power and affirmation. His entire belief system is turned upside down.

In the novel, Pierrot undergoes a gradual but steady transformation from an innocent, kind young boy to a staunch Nazi who believes he is superior and who craves power and control. His first day at the Berghof finds Pierrot overwhelmed, timid and willing to do what he's told. " 'Hello?' he said quietly, nervous of drawing too much attention to himself but hoping that someone would hear." He finds the air fresh and light, "filling his lungs and his spirit with an enormous sense of well-being." Beatrix reaffirms what Pierrot feels when she tells him that although the orphanage was good, it is better for him to be with family. "...But it's family that matters. And you and I are family. The only family that either one of us has left. We must never let each other down." This warning foreshadows the cruel way in which Pierrot will betray Beatrix's trust.

Before his relationship with Adolf Hitler, Pierrot had certain views of the world around him. Prior to going to the orphanage, his best friend was a Jewish boy, Anshel Bronstein. This doesn't matter at all to Pierrot, who trusts Anshel enough to leave his beloved dog, D'Artagnan in his care. Pierrot finds Ernst's warning about never mentioning Anshel's name at the Berghof upsetting because he doesn't understand yet how Germans view Jews. And later on when Beatrix discovers Pierrot is receiving letters from a boy named Anshel she tells him, "I know it must see strange...But letters from this...this Anshel boy could get you into more trouble than you realize...A letter from a Jewish boy would not go down well here." When he arrives at the Berghof, Pierrot identifies himself as French and not German because his mother was French, he has a French name and he considers Paris his home. However, his Aunt Beatrix tells him he is German because his father was German, that he must change his name to the German form which is Pieter and that the Berghof is his home now. It is possible that Beatrix's requests, although undertaken for what she considers Pierrot's safety, leave him with an identity crisis and therefore more open to accepting the Nazi ideology.

Initially Pierrot is a helpful child, doing what Beatrix asks of him. Watching Emma butcher a chicken makes him upset because Pierrot doesn't "like the idea of cruelty. From as far back as he could recall he had hated any sort of violence and instinctively walked away from confrontation...he could never understand the enjoyment some people got from hurting others." A letter from Anshel reveals how life has become so hard in Paris for Jews and it troubles "him to think of his friend being called names and bullied." He asks a schoolmate, Katrina if it would be better to be a bully rather than be bullied and agrees with her that this would never be a good thing.

Gradually however Pierrot's view begin to change, influenced by the Nazi culture around him at the Berghof. As he comes to know Adolf Hitler, he comes to embody the tyranny of Nazi ideology. It begins with Pierrot wearing the uniform of the Deutsches Jungvolk. When Pierrot had first arrived at the Berghof, Ernst spoke to him about uniforms, explaining why people like to wear them. "Because a person who wears one believes he can do anything he likes...He can treat others in a way he never would while wearing normal clothes. Collars, trench coats or jackboots -- uniforms allows us to exercise our cruelty without ever feeling guilt." When Pierrot puts on the uniform he feels exactly as Ernst told him weeks earlier, that he can do whatever he wants. He feels empowered just like Rottenfuher Kotler who stole his sandwiches on the train.  "He...realized how wonderful it would be to have such authority; to be able to take what you wanted, when you wanted, from whomever you wanted, instead of always having things taken from you." Hitler tells Pierrot he must wear the uniform all the time.

Hitler changes how Pierrot views his father's World War I service. His mother believed that although his father didn't die in the war, the war was what killed him. Hitler tells Pierrot that his mother was ignorant because his father should have been proud to die for Germany. Pierrot has read Hitler's Mein Kampf and is given Henry Ford's The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. Almost nine, Pierrot begins treating the servants rudely, to the shock of Beatrix who discovers that her young nephew believes the Jews stole Germany's dignity and that his father was a coward who "allowed weakness to vanquish his spirit."  By the time he's eleven, Pierrot acts cruelly towards the servants, threatening Emma and becoming enraged when he finds an unread letter from Anshel in his discarded book, Emil and the Detectives. Now his view of Anshel is different; "He had like Anshel once, of course he had, but they were just children back then, and he hadn't understood what it meant to be friends with a Jew."

The change in Pierrot does not go unnoticed by Beatrix and Ernst who states, "He's becoming one of them. He's getting more like them every day. He's even started ordering the servants around. I scolded him a few days ago and he told me that I should take my complaints to the Fuhrer or be silent." It is these changes that convince Beatrix and Ernst that they must act to save Pierrot and all young Germans just like him.

There are several people in Pierrot's life who try to show him that his beliefs are wrong but even more that his actions are hurting those around him. Besides Beatrix and Ernst, his classmate Katarina directly points out to him the consequences of his actions involving Heinrich who told his classmates about the things his father had said about Hitler. Heinrich's father was dragged out of his bed and has disappeared while Heinrich and his family lost their home.

However, the transition of Pierrot from innocent French orphan to rabid German Nazi is completed when he betrays Ernst and Beatrix who plot to poison Hitler on Christmas Eve. Discovering their plot, he informs Hitler who has both executed. Pierrot tells himself that his aunt is traitor to the Fatherland and that she must be punished. From this point on, as Pierrot grows older, he becomes more cruel. He threatens Emma if she gives him any more of Anshel's letters, and he even forces himself on Katarina. Katarina is saved by Emma who tells him she doesn't understand who he has become.
" 'You were such a sweet boy when you first came here. Is it really that easy for the innocent to be corrupted?'
Pieter said nothing. He wanted to curse her, to bring his fury down upon her, upon both of them, but something in the way she stared at him, the mixture of pity and contempt on her face, brought some memory of who he had once been back to his mind. Katarina was weeping now, and he looked away, willing them both to leave him alone."
Despite his shame, Pierrot tells the Fuhrer about what Emma did, lying about his part and she is taken away. Katarina's family shop is sold and they vanish from Berchtesgaden. Pierrot now becomes known in Berchtesgaden as "the boy at the top of the mountain" for what he has done.

It is only when the Allies reach the mountain and find Pierrot, now a sixteen year old, hiding in a closet that he is pulled both literally and symbolically out of the darkness of Nazism into the light of liberation. Herta, the only remaining staff member admonished Pierrot before the soldiers came. " 'Don't ever pretend that you didn't know what was going on here. You have eyes and you have ears. And you sat in that room on many occasions, taking notes. You heard it all. You saw it all. And you also know the things you are responsible for...The deaths you have on your conscience. But you're a young man still, you're only sixteen; you have many years ahead of you to come to terms with your complicity in these matters. Just don't ever tell yourself that you didn't know...That would be the worst crime of all.' "

As it turns out, Pierrot seeks redemption by telling his story. Boyne gives his readers a wonderful twist at the end of the novel, explaining how Pierrot's story came to be told. Pierrot sees the fruits of the Nazi regime in the destroyed cities and the ruined families of Germany. He leaves Germany and returns to the city he once considered his home, Paris. The novel ends on a somewhat hopeful note, with Pierrot overwhelmed with guilt but hoping that his story might help him and others come to terms with what happened.

At the beginning of the novel,  when Pierrot leaves the orphanage run by the kindly Durand sisters, he is given a story book by Simone. That story book is Emil and the Detectives written by Erich Kastner, who was opposed to Adolf Hitler and whose novel, Fabian was publicly burned by the Nazis. The story is about a little boy on his way to the city for the first time and who has money stolen from him by a man when he falls asleep on the train. Determined to retrieve his money Emil follows the thief and with the help of a boy from the city, he is able to prove the money is his. He receives a reward because it turns out the man is a wanted thief. Emil and the Detectives demonstrates that even children have the capacity to fight against evil. Every problem Emil encounters he faces directly and has friends to help him.

In The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, Simone and her sister Adele know that Pierrot will be going to a place where he will be challenged to keep his values. Giving him this book is a foreshadowing of the troubles to come and a reminder that he can fight and overcome the evil he will encounter. The story told in Emil and the Detectives parallels Pierrot's experiences until he arrives in Germany, something he quickly realizes. However, unlike Emil, Pierrot does not fight against the evil he encounters. Instead he allows himself to be drawn into it, he refuses the advice and help of others until he himself becomes complicit in the Nazi horrors. And when he sees the book in Hitler's library four years after arriving at the Berghof, Pierrot dismisses it as a quaint children's book for which he has no use.

The Boy At the Top of the Mountain is deeply moving and terribly tragic. Historical fiction fans will appreciate John Boyne's extraordinary tale of coming of age in an era of unspeakable horrors, in the heart of Nazi Germany.

Those readers interested in learning more about the Berghof which is the setting for much of The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, will find many pictures of the mountain retreat on the website, Third Reich in Ruins.

Uncommon Travel Germany also has some interesting pictures of life at the Berghof during Hitler's time there. The Allied bombing completely destroyed the Berghof and it was completely eradicated after the war so nothing remained of the buildings.




Book Details:

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada    2015
215 pp.

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