|Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin|
Only one girl has ever competed in the race, last year’s victor, Adele Wolfe, darling of the Third Reich and particular favorite of Adolf Hitler. But this year, someone else is racing in her place. A survivor of the death camps, Yael can skin shift, thanks to the years of Nazi experimentation performed on her as a child. Using Adele’s face as her own, Yael enters the race, determined to win and kill Hitler at the victor’s ball.
But navigating the road is only one of the dangers she’ll face. Adele has plenty of blood on her hands from last year’s race, and if Yael wants to complete her mission, she’ll need to answer for Adele’s crimes.
What Makes It So Good
Anyone following my blog knows that I’m a huge fan of The Hunger Games trilogy. Those books prompted a huge wave of follow-the-leader novels, all tackling the topic of dystopic futures and life-or-death competitions. The trend was so pervasive, that about three years ago, publishing got so sick of dystopic YA that it’s kind of shocking that this book wiggled through.
But Ryan Graudin hit on a way of writing a dystopia that didn’t feel derivative or played out. Instead of this being some futuristic society that keeps its people in line with laser guns, it’s the most famous dystopia that ever existed – Nazi Germany. Of course, Graudin isn’t the first person to write an alternate history where the Nazis won the war. Anyone who reads comics knows that superheroes can’t get enough of punching Hitler in the face. But her take does feel satisfyingly unique. The inclusion of the race gives the book structure, keeps the pace brisk and – yes – seems like something else Graudin picked up on from the success of The Hunger Games. We YA readers do like our cutthroat competitions.
A lot of people who dislike The Hunger Games do so because they don’t find it plausible. You can’t say that of Wolf By Wolf. The scenario isn’t that far off of what could have happened. Adjust when Hitler planned on launching Operation Sea Lion, and he very well could have won the war. Graudin has done her research, and it shows. From the Zundapp motorcycles to the fragmented remains of the USSR to Yael’s skin shifting ability, the details real and imagined blend together seamlessly.
Yael’s relationships are also fascinating. She comes into the race predisposed to hate all the Hitler Youth boys, but as she’s forced to interact with them, she can’t deny that there’s something more to each. Though none of them have survived the horrors she’s endured, they’re also victims of Hitler’s reign.
The writing itself is sharp, weaving together flashbacks of Yael’s past with the race, allowing the reader to come to know the force that drives her. The prose is at turns heart breaking and brutal, but I never found it so dark I didn’t want to read on. Over all, a fantastic read. Get on the fan wagon while there’s still room, because a sequel is coming out this fall.
What Could Make It Better
I had very few quibbles with this book, but I can think of a couple things that might bother a different reader. One of the strengths of The Hunger Games was that Katniss herself had a very distinct and understandable personality. Within a chapter or two, she made sense to you and even if you hated her, you could still easily describe her personality – sour, withdrawn, but also determined and wily.
You can’t say this of Yael. Yael is a blank slate, a girl who is so wrapped up in her mission, she has very little sense of herself and her own likes or dislikes. For most of the book, she’s impersonating Adele and trying to think of what Adele would do, rather than what she, Yael, would want. This can get frustrating.
Actually, it could have been much worse. A flaw like that would destroy most books. Video games make use of this trope all the time, giving the player a generic, chiseled dude to play who doesn’t interfere with the player’s ability to imagine themselves in the role of hero. If there’s no personality complicating identification, it’s easy to do. But this style of game isn’t typically known for gripping stories. It’s a sacrifice of story quality for immersive experience.
While video games can justify this choice on occasion, it’s harder with books. Yet I’ve read some YA where the author seems to purposely make the heroine as indistinct as possible so that any girl reading can imagine herself into the story without much problem. And yes, they can be immersive, but they can also be shallow. This is where your Bella Swann style heroines come from – girls who seem like shells rather than real people. And Yael is a bit of a shell.
But for this book, it was absolutely the right choice. Yael is a blank slate character because she is LITERALLY a blank slate. One of the saddest and most telling lines of the book comes early on when Yael admits that she can’t remember what her own face looks like. She was too young when the experiments started and took away her original appearance. So yes, Yael doesn’t really know herself and doesn’t seem certain of what she wants. But this bothers her. A lot.
In a certain way, Yael could be any girl out there. We all get to imagine ourselves racing motorcycles and hunting Hitler. That’s her gift and her curse. But by the end of the book, I think Graudin does a decent job of showing that even if her identity has been stripped from her, she isn’t every person who has ever lived.
Young Adult literature is often characterized as being a genre focused on “coming-of-age” and knowing yourself. Yael provides a fascinating entry point into a very universal theme. Most teenagers feel like a blank slate in some sense, one that’s fighting to know itself and grow up. Yael shows just how powerful an identity can be, whether it’s your own or one you stole from someone else. Besides, one of the most enjoyable parts of fiction is getting to imagine ourselves in someone else’s skin, and Yael gives us so many people to be.