Thirty-eighth book reviewed as part of the 130 Challenge.
People often don’t take the ‘adult’ part of ‘young adult’ seriously (myself included) and that is why we have so much sappy literature in this genre. We can definitely do much better.
But despite that expectation, when I saw that ‘Oranges for Christmas’ was about the hard life in Communist East Germany, I thought it was being far too ambitious and I feared that it might turn out to be a drab post-war story.
The story does indeed play on the hard, gray lives of the people in East Germany, but not at all in the way I imagined. And despite painting a realistically grim picture, the story itself is far from a sad one. Nobody wants to read a miserable story, and Margarita Morris makes sure that hers is far from one. She writes about characters that are full of optimism and vigor. These characters don’t surrender to the circumstances, but they are also not overzealous. They strike a fine balance and do only what is practical and sensible for them.
In different parts of the book, the characters display courage, confusion, fear, nervousness, defiance, anger, dejection and cunning. Sabine’s little sister is especially delightful. And Sabine herself is quite the teenager. Dieter doesn’t shy away from using cuss words (unlike other YA books I have read) and there is a sweet love story in the book as also a tragic one.
Margarita must have done some painstaking research, because the descriptions of East Berlin are quite vivid, making someone like me, who’s never been there, to feel right at home. To add that little taste of Germany, she has sprinkled the book with many German phrases like ‘Mein gott!’ (My god!), ‘Guten abend!’ (Good evening), ‘Scheisse!’ (Shit!) and ‘Verdammt!’ (Damn!). These phrases are followed with a quick English equivalent so that the reader doesn’t lose the plot as they search for their meaning. They appear only in places of exclamation and lend a lot of authenticity to the story.
The story itself is really simple; it is narrated from the dual point of view of Dieter, the brother and Sabine, the sister. The transitions between them are really smooth and well done. There is also a really good element of mystery that unravels as the story unfolds. Margarita has several twists in store too, and she makes sure that you’re guessing right till the end.
This book is a great introduction to Europe after WWII and does quite well in raising some really good questions about the abuse of the socialist ideology by those in power. While the story essentially postures East Germany as the bad guys, I don’t think it dwells on that fact or exaggerates it. It also doesn’t paint the Western powers as heroes. The heroes in the story are the individual characters who decide to risk it all for freedom.
The only shortcoming, I would say, is the determination to keep the prose simple and lucid. The simplicity makes the book far less quotable and takes away quite a bit from an otherwise great story.
Having said that, I think this book is a really brisk and fulfilling read. A real triumph for the first book by a writer! I myself learned a lot about life in communist Germany. But other than a lesson in contemporary history, this is also a beautifully poignant story about a young girl and her brother who set out to claim their freedom.