The Willow Wren is a based on memories about Germany seen through the eyes of a young German boy, during the Second World War and for a few years after, in East Germany.
The story began in 1944, with a memory from ten-year-old Ludwig; he and his mother looked on at the partly bombed house that was once their home in Leipzig. They’d returned to the city for Ludwig’s birthday and hoped to meet with his father.
The story then went back, and built up through the early years of Ludwig’s life. We were introduced to a young bookish boy who preferred the peace and quiet of a forest with birds and trees. When war broke out, much of it was far away from Ludwig’s life and was meaningless to him, until the bombs began to fall. While his father stayed in the city the family were split up; Ludwig and his older brother Theodore were sent to a camp, where they were ‘encouraged’ to join the Hitler Youth. Those were terrifying years for two small boys who didn’t like war games and preferred books, made worse when teenager Theodore was sent to the Russian front.
After the war they both found their way back to live in Colditz with their mother and younger siblings. It was now part of the Russian ruled East Germany and Ludwig’s memories of those years were very enlightening.
This book was such a pleasure to read, the writing flowed smoothly and I was engrossed by Ludwig’s life and his perceptions of all that went on around him. I thought that seeing the war years through an adult’s memories of his childhood worked really well; children notice different things and their understanding of events can be different from an adults. I also liked how the author interspersed parts of the narrative with what Ludwig knew later, comparing it to a current event.
Although I can recommend the whole book, two parts stood out for me; I was quite shocked to read that near the end of the war desperate German leaders kept lowering the age limit of Hitler Youth needed in the fighting fronts and children were sent to face the enemy. The other part of the book which I found very interesting was life in East Germany, especially the first few years after the end of the war, when the adjustments to living under Soviet rule were difficult.
I loved the ending and the author’s notes at the end were very enlightening and worth reading to add perspective to the narrative; I found them quite emotional after the final chapter. Definitely a book to read for fans of historical fiction and the war years.
View all my reviews on Goodreads
The touching and nuanced portrait of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany through the eyes of a resourceful German boy.
Ludwig is an odd and introverted child, growing up in Hitler’s Germany. While Ludwig’s father, Wilhelm, is a senior Nazi and a true believer, Ludwig escapes the unfolding catastrophe by withdrawing into nature and books. Eventually, when the Allied bombing campaign intensifies, Ludwig is sent to a Hitler Youth camp, where his oddness makes him a target for bullying.
As the war turns against Germany, the Hitler Youth camp becomes ever more severe and militaristic, and the atmosphere spirals towards chaos. After the Nazis abandon the camp, Ludwig returns home, and his father is presumed dead. With Ludwig’s mother descending into depression, the 11-year-old bears increasing responsibility for the survival of the family as starvation sets in under Russian occupation. Soon, it will be impossible to leave the Russian zone, so Ludwig decides that he must rally his despondent mother and lead her and his three younger siblings in an escape attempt to the west.
Based on a true story, The Willow Wren is a unique, touching exploration of extremism, resilience, and the triumph of the small.