Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

It has been decades since Ben Solomon last saw Otto Piatek. A Jew and a German during WWII, the two boys were raised together as brothers until the Nazis invaded Poland. Where they were once like brothers, they gradually became enemies with Piatek betraying the family that had treated him as one of their own. When Ben sees Elliot Rosenzweig in Chicago, he immediately recognizes him as Piatek. But Rosenzweig is a well respected member of Chicago society. What's more Rosenzweig claims to be a Holocaust survivor himself. Solomon is insistent, however, and with the help of a local attorney hopes to force Rosenzweig into publicly admitting he is Piatek.

It's a bit strange to admit but I am drawn to WWII (and WWI now that I think about it) stories. In part I'm sure it's because this is a part of history that I didn't personally experience. It's hard to even imagine all things considered. And yet there are some works - both books and movies - that draw such a vivid and horrific picture of that time period that it does allow the reader to almost (almost but never completely) see and understand some aspects of the period in question.

I also enjoy them - enjoy seems like an odd word to use - because of the fact that I don't feel any of my own history classes did anywhere near an adequate job of portraying the different facets of this war and the people involved. Don't get me wrong, what I recall of the Fall of Europe course I took in college and my fabulous professor was great, but I definitely don't remember much about Poland for example, which is much of the focus of this particular story.

Anyway, my point is that when Ronald H. Balson's self published debut caught the eye of the folks at St. Martins, which in turn landed a review copy in my hands, it was very much at the top of my "to read" stack along with a few of its brethren, The Book Thief and The Paris Architect. And the reading came quick on the heels of having watched My Best Enemy and The Round Up.

Balson's book does take a bit of a different approach in that it is narrated from the point of view of Ben Solomon in 2004. The story he relays is of course leading up to and during WWII but under the premise that he is telling his story to hopefully gain retribution so many years after the fact. It doesn't downplay the seriousness of his story in any way, but it does allow Balson an opportunity to explain some of the facts to a readership that may not outright understand it all.

Unfortunately it's also my one complaint about the book. There are times when Solomon's explanations to Catherine and his answers to her questions, posed as someone who obviously didn't experience Nazi occupation in Poland, become a bit dry and too much like a classroom setting. Not enough to turn off a reader in my opinion, but it did affect the overall pacing, bogging down parts of the story.

It was clear that the author took great pains to get the facts correct in the book and all in all it was a very good read. If you have time, I suggest checking out this interview with the author from Morning Shift on WBEZ.

Rating: 3.5/5

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