Sunday, February 25, 2024

Library read... Enemies in the Orchard by Dana VanderLugt

It's library time! I ran across a post on Twitter recommending today's read. It's set in the US during World War II and takes an new twist on some interesting, historical details. It's written in verse for the middle grade (which already has me hoping its done well...I'm picky on verse novels) and promises to hit the emotions hard. It caught my curiosity enough that I did a search online at our library, and while it isn't available in our small town, I was able to order it in from a few towns over.  (Got to love modern libraries!)

This one was released just last September and is relatively new to the market. I'm a bit surprised that I didn't see it floating around earlier, but my radar does tend to have a few blind spots. So, off we go and see what this one is about! 

by Dana VanderLugt
Upper Middle Grade / YA Historical
288 pages
ages 9 to 18

Set against the backdrop of WWII, this achingly beautiful middle grade novel in verse based on American history presents the dual perspectives of Claire, a Midwestern girl who longs for college even as she worries for her soldier brother, and Karl, a German POW who’s processing the war as he works on Claire’s family farm. This poignant and moving story of an unlikely connection will stay with readers long after the final page.

It’s October 1944, and while Claire’s older brother, Danny, is off fighting in World War II, her dad hires a group of German POWs to help with the apple harvest on their farm. Claire wants nothing to do with the enemies in the orchard, until she begins to notice soft-spoken, hardworking Karl. Could she really have something in common with a German soldier?

Karl, meanwhile, grapples with his role in the war as he realizes how many lies Hitler’s regime has spread. But his encounters with Claire—the serious girl with gentle eyes—give him hope that he can change and become the person he wants to be.

Inspired by the little-known history of POW labor camps in the United States, this lyrical verse novel is told in alternating first-person poems by two young people on opposite sides of the war. Against a vivid backdrop of home front tensions and daily life, intimate entries reveal Claire’s and Karl's hopes and struggles, and their growing attraction to each other even as the war rages on. What are their chances of connection, of redemption, of peace?



Every word counts in this beautifully formed novel, which explores war, hatred, loss, and human connections.

With Claire's older sister married and her brother across the ocean to fight in the war, she feels a bit out of place on the apple orchard with her parents and wishes things could return to a somewhat normal state. While she constantly worries about her brother's safety, her father has more to deal with and is also concerned about the pending apple harvest, since workers are scare. So, he's more than ready to sign-up for a governmental program, which has POWs (German soldiers) working on farms. Claire not only catches comments about the evil workers at school but isn't convinced its safe herself, especially since soldiers like these are trying to kill her brother abroad. As the days pass, tensions ease, and she's even willing to talk to one of the captives. But when news of her brother's death arrives, everything changes again.

I've read several novels in verse, but this is, by far, the best one I've come across, yet. The author manages to weave the story naturally into poetic form...never feeling forced or fake...and masterfully uses the words to build the world and emotions. All the while, the reader is drawn into the story until the fact that it's in verse, almost disappears.

This is told from both Claire's and Karl's point of view with the chapters switching back and forth between them (for the most part). Not only do the titles of each chapter keep any confusion away, but the voices are very distinct, and the perspectives, coming from opposite ends of the situation, are more than easy to distinguish. Claire's fears and concerns are very understandable as she tries to find footing in an uncertain time. While there are scenes at the small school, these only filter in when it drives the story forward and add fuel as needed. Karl's thoughts come across just as naturally. With the two juxtaposed positions, the similarities, concerns and hopes of both sides come across nicely and open up food for thought. 

The world is well set in the time frame. Not only did the author stay grounded in life during the time but also did an excellent job on the German direction. Kudos on that front! It was no problem to sink into the scenes and see them coming to life. It draws in, never leaves a moment of boredom, and hits on the emotional level well. 

I do recommend this one to even those readers who aren't huge poetry fans, since this one really flows that well. I do, however, see this as a slightly better fit to older audiences (tweens and teens) rather than the middle grade group. While this is perfectly fine for the age group, Claire's concerns surrounding schooling, future carrier, and the growing romance itself, are more geared to this slightly older age group.


Natalie Aguirre said...

I featured Dana on my blog and have been wanting to read this book. Both main characters have such different perspectives. And I had no idea of this aspect of WWII. I'm glad you enjoyed Dana's book so much.

Tonja Drecker said...

I'm going to have to head over and find your post!