“He knew that a hero shouldn’t fear death, but where was the glory in dying for his country and never knowing it.”
I first came across Dean Hughes’s Soldier Boys as a student teacher when my host teacher selected it for a book club that met before school once a week. I knew as soon as I read the last page that this provocative title would be among the books I chose to teach in my own classroom. As I expected, it quickly became a class favorite with students fondly recalling the time in my class we read that World War II novel. The last time I taught the book I was expecting my now twelve-year-old daughter, so I was thrilled when she decided to read it for herself. This book opened the door to her love of historical fiction, and she has since gone on to devour every young adult novel she can find on World War II, the Holocaust, and other major historical events.
Soldier Boys follows the path of two young soldiers, seventeen-year-old American, Spencer Morgan and sixteen-year-old German, Dieter Hedrick. Dieter, a Hitler youth-turned-soldier buys wholeheartedly into the nationalistic propaganda of the Nazi establishment. His greatest desire is to prove his worth by fighting valiantly for the cause of Hitler. Blinded by his devotion to the Fuhrer, Dieter must come to terms with the appaling reality of the Third Reich.
After the shocking bombing of Pearl Harbor, Spence decides to enlist in the paratroopers to prove himself to his family and to his crush LuAnn. Undaunted by the harsh realities of war, Spence assumes that the path to heroism will be simple, yet quickly learns the life of a soldier is often wrought with atrocity. Both Dieter and Spence are forced to grow up far from the comforts of home, as each are faced with the painful realizations that war is brutal. One is compelled to come to terms with his blind allegiance to a soulless regime; the other must consider if those who are forced to hold different views are due mercy.
Hughes explores the themes of blind patriotism and of self-sacrifice in this powerful novel. Readers must examine the question of whether political boundaries separate our humanity. What happens when we grow disillusioned with our own government’s agenda? Does it empower us to consider the lives on the other side of the battlefield? What makes an enemy? Spence and Dieter are forced to consider these questions as their paths begin to converge.
As in any war novel, there is some violence and a few disturbing scenes, yet Hughes handles them carefully. Dieter and Spence both lose friends in battle and must suppress their grief as the fighting intensifies. This book is suitable for children sixth grade and older. It serves as an excellent companion to a unit on World War II and provides an intimate look into the realities of what war was like for young soldiers, who were still children themselves, compelled to become men as they fought in a difficult, deadly war. While Hughes doesn’t ask readers to examine whether war is necessary or good, he does humanize the experience of both Dieter, a Nazi, and Spence, an American. Ultimately, the novel is one of sacrifice and the impact that it has on the lives of those who survive.
“But he knew the truth, and he told it to himself: ‘I will think about it all my life.'”