The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow

Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern has never thought of himself as a Jew. But to the bullies at his school in Naziera Berlin, it doesn't matter that Karl has never set foot in a synagogue or that his family doesn't practice religion. Demoralized by relentless attacks on a heritage he doesn't accept as his own, Karl longs to prove his worth to everyone around him.
So when Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, makes a deal with Karl's father to give Karl boxing lessons, Karl sees it as the perfect chance to reinvent himself. A skilled cartoonist, Karl has never had an interest in boxing, but as Max becomes the mentor Karl never had, Karl soon finds both his boxing skills and his art flourishing.
But when Nazi violence against Jews escalates, Karl must take on a new role: protector of his family. Karl longs to ask his new mentor for help, but with Max's fame growing, he is forced to associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, leaving Karl to wonder where his hero's sympathies truly lie. Can Karl balance his dream of boxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm's way?

I've been anxious to read The Berlin Boxing Club for a while. Any story that takes place during World War II has always interested me. While what went on was so appalling, it's also so intriguing and some of the hero stories that come out of it are so inspirational. This book is set in the 1930's, during pre-war Nazi Germany. Things were just beginning to get bad, the Nuremberg Laws having just been put in affect. Throughout the book, things just keep getting worse for the protagonist and his family. All the Jews get expelled from public school, they're evicted from their apartment. I know that these are the kind of things that went all, but reading about it still never ceases to appall me.
Karl Stern is fourteen-years-old when this book begins. With an atheist father and agnostic mother, religion never was a factor in his life. He didn't consider himself Jewish. He didn't even look Jewish--resembling his Danish grandfather. Being Jewish is more of a nuisance to him than anything else at first, because he still has Jewish blood, which makes the fact that his family is non-practicing irrelevant. He begins the book as a tall, lanky boy, weak and unable to defend himself. After a particularly bad beating by a few Hitler Youth, he gets taken under the wing of world renowned heavyweight, Max Schmeling, who is a friend of Karl's father. That begins the start of Karl's amazing transformation.
Watching Karl's transformation was the best part of the book. I loved watching him grow into a fantastic boxer. And it wasn't just the physical changes that Karl went through, but the mental and emotional ones as well. He learned to be fearless in the ring, and that translated into some amazing bravery outside the ring. The odds were never in Karl's favor, yet he was able to overcome so much. Also, besides the boxing, Karl was also an amazing cartoonist, and I loved getting to see his comic sketches throughout the book!
All the characterization was fantastic. Every character was distinct and believable, their actions portraying the time period perfectly. I loved Karl's relationship with his little sister, Hildy, and seeing Karl's respect for his father grow throughout the book as he learns more about him.
I found myself a little unsatisfying with the book's ending. It's not that it was a bad or sad ending... it just felt very abrupt to me. I just expected something more powerful than what I got, I guess.
And the writing in general never really wowed me. It's not that there was anything wrong with it necessarily... I think I just expected more deep and poignant narration based on the topic. Though I suppose it was told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old boy, so how deep could it have been? But there were rare occasions where I paused from the wording. Despite this being a read I couldn't put down, I expected more out of the prose narration wise.
Overall, this was such a powerful book with such an important message. It's about finding strength in a time where the majority of the people succumbed to weakness.


Anonymous said...

I'm fascinated by books set in Europe during WWII. It was a horrifying time, yet I'm always on the lookout for new books to read set in the time period. Thanks for reviewing this one!