The Berlin Boxing Club is an emotional shot to the solar plexus. Written for teens, read by a man, this book about exploding manhood amid the emotional devastation of Nazi Germany could go down in young adult book legend.
Robert Sharenow’s novel is the story of 14-year-old Karl Stern, a skinny kid with an artists hand and gentle temperment. Yet as the boy becomes a man, his tumultuous teen years are set against the rise of anti-Semitism in Nazi German. Stern is tested by anti-Jewish bullies and finds his lanky still to mature body uninspiring. He has the anger of youth, but lacks the confidence or physical skills to carry out anything short of retreat.
Then an encounter with a champion boxer changes his life.
One of the things that interested our reviewer in the book to start was the background story of German boxing legend Max Schmeling and his rise to fame as the man who beat Joe Louis in 1936, heaving him into the stratosphere of accolades among the Nazi party, even from Adolf Hitler.
Schmeling in The Berlin Boxing Club come to find out is a friend of Karl’s gallery owner father. Haggling over a painting leads to a deal, Schmeling can have the art if he teaches Karl to box. The pact is struck and Karl’s life changes radically, both physically and mentally, over the successive years.
Sharenow snags immensely difficult subjects wrapping them into a compact story not unlike the tightly taped fists of a boxer. A boy’s questioning himself as he matures, his doubts about his father as a masculine role-model. Coupled with the lustful yearning for members of the opposite sex and the all-consuming national hatred of his heritage, Karl is passionate, unfocused and full of revenge. But he cannot exorcise all those demons, so he must find small victories. Boxing equips Karl for manhood, but it does not define him, merely armors Karl in that awkward transition.
Sharenow, who we interviewed yesterday, treats Schmeling with balance. Painting him as brave and timid, a difficult feat. In real-life Schmeling rescued two boys during the horrid Kristallnacht, which Sharenow riffs from as the Stern family is torn apart on that evening. Karl envies and loathes Schmeling, leaving the reader to decide where the truth lay.
In that flurry of scenes leading to the climax of the novel, we are also fully introduced to an important and colorful character from Karl’s father’s past that explores tolerance as well as enlightens the young man about his father’s bravery of years before.
The Berlin Boxing Club is an important book for 21st century boys on the cusp of manhood. And to teach the lessons to tumultuous young men of today, we must go back 80 years to some of the darkest moments of the last century.
If there is a teen in your life, The Berlin Boxing Club should be at the ready to both entertain and inform.
The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow was received for free by Boston Book Bums