Dean Hughes' Soldier Boys is the tragic story of two young men who enlist to fight for their countries in World War II. It is a gritty, realistic account of the horror of war told in alternating narratives.
The novel opens a week after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, unleashing the German blitzkrieg. Ten year old Dieter Hedrick, a member of the Jungfolk, is intimidated into jumping into a icy pond by seventeen-year-old Hans Keller, a Scharfuhrer with the Hitler Youth. Dieter is both afraid of the water and ashamed to be seen naked by the older boys, yet he wants to be complimented by Hans, who is funny and fierce, and whom he idolizes. Dieter is thrilled by Hitler's speeches and the victories achieved by the German army, the Wehrmacht. "Dieter thrilled to the words hoping that the day would come when he could prove himself the way these valiant soldiers were doing." Dieter sees Hitler as standing-up for Germany. However, Dieter's father is not impressed by Hitler as he fears years of war. To Dieter his father seems weak and he is ashamed. Although he's reluctant, Dieter jumps into the cold water of the pond, not once but twice. He believes that given the chance, he will go to war and make his family proud.
The story jumps ahead to December, 1941. Fifteen-year-old Spencer Morgan is a Mormon living in just outside Brigham City, Utah with his mother, father, his nineteen-year-old brother Robert and his sister Louise, and his eleven-year old brother, Lloyd. His family runs an orchard, growing peaches, cherries and apricots. Robert is determined to sign up to go fight the Japanese. Meanwhile, Spencer who is crushing on LuAnn Crowther, tries to impress her by stating that when his time comes, he too will sign up.
The narrative jumps ahead two years to November, 1943. Spence who is sixteen, is flunking high school and he's determined to enlist. But his father is not happy, telling Spence that he is not mature enough and that he suspects Spence wants to prove something to LuAnn. Although she and Spence did date a bit, they parted ways and LuAnn has been dating Dennis Stevens and it is rumoured they plan to marry when she graduates high school. In the end, Spence's father signs his papers. Spence promises his dad he will turn to God for support and that he won't take extra chances. When Spence meets LuAnn he tells her he plans to join the paratroopers. Later on his older sister Louise confronts him, stating that he's only joining "to show-up LuAnn" which Spence vehemently denies.
Spence passes the intelligence test and is sent to Georgia for basic training and jump school for the Airborne to become a paratrooper. There he meets Ted Draney from Colorado and the two become fast friends, talking each other out of dropping out of paratrooper school. They spend the next thirteen weeks preparing for their first jump and eventually make it through paratrooper school. After spending time in a camp on Salisbury Plain, west of London, Spence and Ted who are part of the 17th Airborne Infantry Division, are being sent to the Ardennes Forest. Hitler undertook a surprise attack across the Belgian and Luxembourg borders, penetrating deep into the Ardennes Forest. This bulge in the American defense lines has become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The day after Christmas Spence's battalion gets dropped off closer to the front. He's about to get his first taste of war.
In September of 1944, Dieter Hedrick is now fifteen and working with crews of Hitler Youth, digging antitank trenches near the Mosel River in Luxembourg, along the Siegfied Line. With the Allies pushing out of Normandy and across France, this is Germany's attempt to stop them from invading Germany. Dieter is now a Scharfuhrer, having distinguished himself during weapons training camp. He was part of an antiaircraft battery in Augsburg. Dieter soon sees death when one of his crew is killed by aircraft fire, and a deserter is tied up and shot. To reward his efforts, Dieter along with many other young boys is taken to a train car where he meets Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and Hitler himself, who awards the boys the War Service Cross, First Class. Filled with Nazi fervor, Dieter becomes determined to enlist, hounding Lieutenant Feiertag. He gets what he wants and is shipped out to the front, a member "in a company of soldiers in the Forty-seventh Panzer Corps, part of the Fifteenth Army." There he meets Colonel Schaefer who challenges everything Dieter has been told about war, Germany and Hitler and the reason he's fighting.
Soldier Boys is a tragic story that demonstrates how the idealization of war and military propaganda draws young people in, where they are eventually confronted with its horrific reality. The book follows the paths of two young men from two countries at war - Germany and America as they become soldiers. Both boys are under-aged and immature, enlisting for the wrong reasons. One is heavily propagandized and brainwashed and patriotic to a fault, the other naive and hoping to prove his worth on the battlefield.
Dieter enlists out of patriotic emotions that are the result of indoctrination by the Nazis. He believes Germany has the high ground in the war and is simply protecting itself from America, Russia and Poland. When he is ten years old Dieter listens to "Hitler's fine speech to his people" and he believes that Poland had provoked Germany into attacking. Dieter views Hitler as someone "standing up for the Fatherland, making it a great nation again."
However, Dieter's views clash with his father, a veteran of the Great War, who never talks about "the brave German boys". Instead his father spoke about the the trenches, the mud, the food and being one of the lucky ones to survive. Dieter believes his father may have been a coward, given that he shows no evidence of having done anything great. Eventually over the next few years Dieter works tirelessly in the Hitler Youth and gets himself sent to the front in 1944. By this time the tide of war has turned against Germany, morale is low, and the Wehrmacht that Dieter loves is armed with the very old and the very young.
Dieter's "idea of an honorable death had always been glorious and clean." However when he sees another Hitler Youth die a gruesome death, he is forced to confront the reality of death. The truth about the war is revealed though by Schaefer who tells him: "You believe all these lies. You know nothing. We attacked London early on in the beginning. We wiped out Warsaw. We're as much to blame as anyone for all this killing of children and women and little boys." Dieter's response is to not believe Schaefer and to consider him a traitor. Schaefer warns him that the war is already lost, "Germany has already lost the war. The Russians have won in the east...Don't die for that pig Hitler." He tells Dieter to try to save his own life. He also reveals the truth behind the Nazi propaganda about the Jews, that millions are being gassed. Even though Dieter is sickened by this he still refuses to believe Schaefer, telling him he's a coward.
As they face their last battle, Dieter finds himself reconsidering death and heroism. "He knew that a hero shouldn't fear death, but where was the glory in dying for his country and never knowing it --just lying on the battlefield, gray and hard as ice? It was nice to think of a statue in his village, at least a placard with his name on it, but it wouldn't happen, he supposed, and even if it did, what would it mean to him, once he was one of those frozen corpses?"
Spencer's narrative is not as well developed and his reason for enlisting seems superficial. Spence's father hopes he will be a missionary and preach, however Spence isn't interested. Instead, his reasons for enlisting are to prove himself to LuAnn Crowther, the girl who rejected him. Spence believes he is not good looking; he has buckskin-colored hair, freckles and crooked teeth. Spence, like every other boy wanted LuAnn to be his girl, but after dating for a short time they each went their separate ways and she's now dating a wealthy boy named Dennis Stevens. He believes that LuAnn can't really see the kind of man he will be. "He was no coward. LuAnn would know, when the time came, what kind of man he could be." After enrolling Spence believes that LuAnn pities him and he is hopeful he will return as a hero. Spence's father recognizes his reason for wanting to join, yet still signs his papers.
Like Dieter, Spence's view of the military is highly idealized.He sees the respect paratroopers get and so he becomes determined to get into Airborne training. When he's finished his training he wants to go home so LuAnn could see the man he's become but that doesn't happen. Eventually he's sent as an infantryman into The Battle of the Bulge. War is very different from what Spence imagined. "He didn't understand any of this. He had seen war in his head so many times, imagined it, but this was all wrong. It was digging and waiting, with guns miles away blowing people up. How was he supposed to be brave against something so big, too far off, to face and fight?"
In the heat of the battle, with his best friend dead as well as many other soldiers, Spence is sick with the realization of what war really is. "And suddenly he was furious. He hadn't known it would be like this, hadn't understood what he was getting into when he had signed up. Some idiot had sent the company down that hill, sacrificed them for no good reason. Who was running this war? Did they know what they were doing? Did anyone even care that Ted had died for nothing?"
Refusing to accept the norms of war, that you simply let the enemy die, when Spence hears the cries of a young wounded German soldier he knows he has to act. "What would he want someone to do, he asked himself, if his own little brother were the one down there?" In the end his act of heroism is remembered, but he's not there to witness it. Spence's heroic act is not what he thought it would be - the killing in battle of another soldier. Ironically, he loses his life trying to save the life of an enemy soldier. It is an act Spence's father knows the people of Brigham City will not understand.
Hughes captures the essence of war, the horror, the fear and the waste that comes along with it through the eyes of two young boys. Soldier Boys asks us to consider the cost of war to those who become soldiers. It demonstrates how the propaganda of war is used to deceive people into believing war is glamorous and honourable. In the end, there are no winners.
Soldier Boys is a short, quick novel that offers plenty of themes for readers to consider.
Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes
Toronto: Atheneum Books for Young Readers 2015