THE CHILDREN'S WAR
by J.N. Stroyer
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Children's War is J.N. Stroyer's look at a turn of the century world in which the Nazis managed to conquer most of Europe. Told from the points of view of members of the surviving Polish underground (the Armia Krajowa) and a zwangarbeiter (slave) in the home of a Nazi official, this novel looks at the dehumanizing effect a totalitarian régime has, not only on the despots in positions of power, but also on those who are subject to that régime and those who fight against it.
Stroyer's primary character is Peter, a zwangarbeiter for Karl and Elspeth Vogel. The first part of the novel demonstrates the Vogels' casual cruelty to Peter who they view as an Untermensch who does not need any of the human necessities, including adequate food, water or rest. Despite this, Peter managed to maintain a hold on his dignity and humanity by remembering his free days when he was in love and working as a part of the English underground.
Peter's story is mirrored by sections dealing with various members of the Armia Krajowa who are fighting for the survival of the remnants of the Polish people and, they hope, the autonomy of their nation. Using terrorist tactics, Stroyer opens up an examination of the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters as well as the idea that the ends justify the means. Unlike Peter, Stroyer's underground has allowed its collective (and in many cases individual) humanity to be lessened as they see individuals of all ranks and races as simply tools to be used against the oppressors. Zosia, an AK colonel, has absolutely no difficulty with the idea of raising her own daughters and nephew to be warriors whose lives would be happily expended for a distant cause which she does not believe she'll see come to fruition.
Even worse than Zosia are the undercover agents of the AK who have infiltrated Nazi bureaucracy and must realistically act the role of Übermenschen. Not only do these agents indulge in the same casual cruelty as the Vogels, although to a lesser extent, but they have condescending attitudes to the Nazi Untermenschen who they claim to be fighting to liberate. In their minds, their eventual amorphous goals more than excuse the treatment of any individual. Their idea, reflected in many modern terrorist organizations, is that there is no distinction between soldier and civilian (or slave in The Children's War).
All of Stroyer's characters eventually come together in a variety of plot twists, showing more and more of themselves. One of the most problematic is the relationship which forms between Peter and one of the members of the AK. Peter falls madly in love with her (possibly because he views her as his rescuer) while she sees him only as a pawn in the on-going war against the Reich. While declaring her love to him, she acts as if she has no interest in him and sees any needs he might have as merely an infringement. Peter, used to being treated much worse by his former masters, allows himself to continue to be degraded by the woman he loves.
One of the things which makes The Children's War such a powerful book is that Stoyer has painted a picture of a world in which evil is allowed to flourish while those who have the power to prevent it have elected to turn a blind eye to that evil until it is forced to recognize it. Even then, reaction is slow and grudging, as the North American Union abets the crimes of the Reich by trying to suppress any evidence of wrong-doing from the American electorate, choosing a course of isolationism rather than trying stand up for human rights and civility.
Stroyer does a wonderful job breathing life into a world which could easily have grown out of the world the Nazis appeared to desire during World War II. Stroyer's downtrodden include those who the Nazis considered Untermenschen, like the Poles, as well as those who had a claim to Aryan blood, but were not considered as pure, such as the English.
The Children's War is a long novel, but it contains few, if any, extraneous details or characters. The writing flows smoothly, even those parts in which Stroyer describes the casual brutality of beatings, experimentation, and, perhaps worst of all, indifference.
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