Projekt 1065 A Novel of World War II was published by Scholastic Press in October 2016. The author is Alan Gratz.
This novel will, no doubt, have special appeal for middle-grade boys. With a Lexile level of 780, the text is simple enough to read for third or fourth graders. I would not, however, encourage younger kids to read this book. More about that later. From its short chapters and its opening line, “It’s hard to smile when you’re having dinner with Nazis,” it pulls even reluctant readers into a fast-paced, intriguing spy story. At the same time, it gives us a fascinating view of Nazi Germany during World War II.
The main character is a 13-year-old Irish boy named Michael O’Shaunessey. All children in Nazi Germany were required to be members of the League of German Girls or Hitler Youth (for boys), and Michael was no different. What IS different about Michael is that he is a spy. His mother is one, too. Michael’s father is the Irish ambassador to Germany. Other embassies were closed in Berlin during World War II. Ireland was neutral during World War II, and that is why the Irish embassy is still open in Berlin in 1943, when this story takes place. Since his father is a diplomat, Michael’s family enjoys a level of freedom from Nazi oversight that allows Mrs. O’Shaunessey and Michael to take pictures and gather information that is useful to the Allies, and Michael’s father sends them to Ireland in his diplomatic pouch, which is safe from Nazi eyes.
The boys in Hitler Youth were used to aid the Nazi war effort. When a British RAF plane is shot down over Berlin, Michael and the other boys are sent to scour the countryside to find the missing pilot. Since Michael’s loyalties lie with Britain instead of the Nazis, he tries very hard, and succeeds, in finding the pilot first. He helps Simon hide and later that night leads his parents to the hidden pilot. Simon has a sprained ankle and needs a place to hide until he can get away. The O’Shaunesseyes take Simon, who is Jewish, back to their home in the Irish embassy and hide him in a closet, a crime that is punishable by death.
Michael defends a smaller boy named Fritz against bullies, and as he comes to know Fritz better, learns of Projekt 1065. This top-secret German project is the development of the jet engine, something that would give the Nazis a huge advantage over Britain’s Royal Air Force, which drops bombs on Berlin on a daily basis. Fritz’s father has the blueprints out in plain sight in his study in Fritz’s home. It turns out that the jet engine factory was Simon’s secret mission; he was taking pictures of the facility where the engines were to be built to gain information for the Allies. Simon encourages Michael to get closer to Fritz in order to gain access to the blueprints for the new jet airplanes. Since Michael has a photographic memory, it is easy for him to memorize the blueprints. Then Simon draws them with Michael’s help so the blueprints can be given to the Allies.
As Michael gets closer to Fritz, he sees the other boy’s fanatical loyalty to Hitler and learns that Fritz would literally do anything for his country and the Führer.
While I enjoyed the story about an Allied spy in Nazi Germany, there were some things about this book that really bothered me. Michael is trying to help Fritz gain a place in the elite SRD (like a junior Gestapo squad for kids). An older boy, Horst, pits Michael and Fritz against each other in the boxing ring, knowing that they are friends. In the boxing ring, Michael knocks Fritz down a time or two, whispering to him to stay down. But Fritz just keeps coming back for more. Finally, Michael shows no mercy, punching Fritz repeatedly in the head after he’s down. They both gain a place in the SRD for showing the Nazi leaders that they will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Michael describes how something came over him in the ring and he became like the monsters he hates.
In the second instance, Michael needs to win a spot on the “science team” – he needs to be one of four boys chosen to go to a conference in Switzerland. The four boys’ purpose for going is to kill a top scientist who is working on developing the atomic bomb for the Allies. Michael plans to save the scientist and stop the bombing that would injure many scientists and innocent people.
After Michael initially is not chosen for that team, he “does whatever it takes” to accomplish his goal – he savagely attacks one of the four boys on the team (Horst) and leaves him “alive – but just barely” and blood pooling around him. Did Michael kill him? We don’t know.
So, to solve a problem, Michael resorts to very violent behavior. True, it is against a bully who, it might be argued, deserved it. The theme of the book is that sometimes, people have to be sacrificed to win a war. Michael asks at one point, “How do you decide who to sacrifice and who to save?” By the end of the book he has decided on his own who to sacrifice and how to solve his problem by using violence and beating someone (almost?) to death.
Even with my own abhorrence of violence, I would still recommend this book to ages 12 and up. I do think teachers and parents need to be aware of the violent scenes so they are prepared to discuss them with kids, realizing that the story took place in wartime, and the setting of the war and the violent Nazi culture perhaps justified these events. Other reviews I have seen don’t even mention the violent scenes. Perhaps I’m the only one bothered by them.
“A winning combination of action, suspense, and historical setting. Recommended for all collections.”
“He (the author) doesn’t shy from challenging his readers, offering them a coming-of-age story that concludes that sometimes good people must be sacrificed or wrong things must be done in order to win a larger battle.A rare insider’s glimpse into the Hitler Youth: animated, well-researched, and thought-provoking.”