Monday, November 2, 2015

The Other Side of the Wall - a review

The Other Side of the Wall by Simon Schwartz
Translated from German by Laura Watkinson
Published by Graphic Universe, 2015
112 pages, best for grades 6 and up
Paperback

Simon Schwartz was born in East Berlin in the 1980s.The Other Side of the Wall is his graphic memoir of growing up in the divided city, of his parent's three-year struggle to obtain an exit permit to leave East Berlin, and of his later forays between the two Berlins.

His parents met in college. His father came from a family of staunch Communist Party members.  His mother's family was secretly more liberal, though any deviation from expected Party behavior was cause for examination and surveillance by the Stasi, or secret German police.  It was dangerous to stray from party orthodoxy, particularly if you were a teacher, as Simon's father was. His parents became disillusioned with life in the restrictive East German city.

The Soviet Union had recently invaded Afghanistan. My dad worked on his speech, night after night.
     "God, how can you describe a war as just?  They want me to use fancy words to justify this invasion."
     "Just write something you can square with your own conscience -- at least in part."
     "I don't know if I can do that."

When his parents requested exit permits, their lives became fraught with poverty,ostracism, and physical danger.

The book's layout is as structured as Communist life - with few exceptions, four blocks per page - each bordered in black. The artwork is monochromatic, fitting for the stark reality of life behind the Wall. The story is told  in speech bubbles, text blocks that set the scene or relay back story, and the occasional footnote explaining terms that may not be familiar to readers (well-known  politicians or artists of the time, and uniquely German or Communist terms). Several panels are wordless - vague remembrances of the young Schwarz.

Back matter includes a glossary, a timeline of the Berlin Wall, and maps of Germany and Berlin 1961-1989.

I recently reviewed the historical fiction novel, A Night Divided, that describes life in East Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Berlin Wall's construction.The Other Side of the Wall is a perfect companion book - a nonfiction, graphic novel account of the Wall's waning days.  For younger readers not familiar with day-to-day life in the Cold War Era, this is a chilling introduction.


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