Simon Pulse, New York, 2003
Awards: Iowa Teen Award Master List
Dean Hughes has written an outstanding book in Soldier Boys. The genre is historical fiction. The antagonist is a young hero from Brigham City named Spence, who joins the Army Airborne unit believing he will be able to show his family and a love interest that he is a real man. He has a romantic idea of war that quickly changes once the bullets and shells start to fly. He makes promises to his family not to lower his Christian standards by drinking alcohol, smoking, and etc. He finds out how much those religious standards mean to him in the legendary Battle of the Bulge.
The protagonist is a young antihero named Dieter who works his way up through Hitler’s youth program. Hughes highlights the difference in thinking between Germans who are experienced in life, those who remember the First World War, and the young who are being manipulated by Hitler. Dieter’s parents are opposed to their son joining Hitler’s youth program. When Dieter’s mother vocalizes the way she feels, Dieter threatens that he could turn her in for her opinions.
Dieter is too young to join the German army. He works his way up through the youth ranks. Like Spence, Dieter has visions of grandeur. More than anything he wants to be a hero for Germany. As the Germany begins to make a last stand, regardless of his age, Dieter is given his chance to join the main forces. He is assigned a mentor, Corporal Schaefer, who is older and much more experienced in the war. His mentor has seen more war than he cares for. He is both irritated by Dieter’s bravado and concerned about his welfare. Schaefer begins to express his doubts about Hitler. At one point Dieter points his weapon at Schaefer for treason.
This book is a great introduction to the Second World War for the young adult reader. Instead of focusing on the gore and the horror of the war, Hughes focuses a great deal on the feelings and thoughts of the young men who fought in this world altering event. The entire novel builds to a point where Hughes teaches the idea that heroism in a time of war can come from simple humanity. I can’t recommend this book enough.