Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse
I will admit it. I had all the wrong ideas about this book. When I saw that it was a novel-in-verse about German POWs picking apples in a local orchard that is told in chapters that alternate between the points-of-view of a German prisoner and the daughter of the farmer who owns the orchard, I expected a delightful story about distrust becoming friendship, then romance. I expected that at the end of the book, the German POW, Karl, would be released to Germany but would eventually return to the States, be reunited with Claire, the orchard daughter, and they would be married and live happily ever after. I expected that there might be some Christian echoes thrown in for good measure. Having read the book, I would like to formally apologize to the author and the book for selling this book short in my mind before I read it. I was wrong. This book is far more than that.
Enemies in the Orchard is an amazing example of how we shouldn’t sell books short because the stories they give us can make a difference in the world. We live in a world where, in social media and face-to-face encounters, in church and community, in schools and grocery stores, in the polling place and over the airwaves, our society has become so polarized, so political, so tribal that we seem to see everyone as either one of us or one of them. Christian denominations are dividing into warring tribes. Teachers are leaving the profession because of the vitriol heaped upon them by parents who do not trust the curriculum, the school library, or the teachers themselves. Neighborhoods fight proxy wars with yard signs and holiday displays. And democracy, a system dependent on compromising for the public good, has ground to a halt.
How can a kids’ book matter in the face of all this? By reminding us of the truth. Enemies in the Orchard takes place in a time of division at least as deep as the one we are in now. Pretty much the entire world was on one side or the other, and the Allies waged a desperate war against Nazism. And, while the ideologies of the two sides were certainly not equally defensible, it was easy for both sides to forget that the people on the other side of the battle line were human beings – sons, brothers, and friends, all fighting for diverse reasons, with their own doubts, fears, and regrets.
The story opens with two poems. In the first, the reader meets Claire DeBoer. In seven stanzas, Claire tells us where she is from. The first stanza starts this way:
“I am from hand-me-downs,
Soft McIntosh apples simmered down to sauce
and crisp, hard Cortlands eaten straight off the tree.”
In the lines that follow, we see that Claire is also from a house where the cold wind finds its way into her upstairs bedroom, where the smell of lilacs blends with the smell of tractor exhaust, where she works hard mopping floors and loves to read and goes to church twice each Sunday. We learn about her parents and siblings, what their family has lost, and the dreams Claire has for the future.
In the second poem, the reader meets Karl Hartmann. In nine stanzas, Karl tells us where he is from. The first stanza of that poem starts this way:
“I am from smooth stones skipped
in the River Danube.
From Oma’s lap where she read me fairy tales.”
In the lines that follow, we learn Karl is from a place where his mother makes his favorite pork schnitzel, though not as often since the death of his father. He is from a place where he has always had to work before play, but he loves riding his bike, building forts, fishing, having bonfires with his friends, and coming home after curfew. We find out about his church, the parades in his small German town, and that he joined the Hitler Youth to make his father proud. Later he joined the Nazi army to protect his family, his country, and himself. We learn that he is a rule follower but is starting to question that about himself.
And, this sets up the story that follows. Karl, a prisoner-of-war, is shipped to the States where he is assigned to a work camp and picks apples every day for Claire’s family’s apple orchard since the apples are necessary for the war effort and Claire’s older brother is serving in the army and unable to help her father. Karl expects that his life as a prisoner-of-war will be painful, deprived, and unhappy but is surprised to find that he is well-treated, contrary to what he has been told about the Americans. Claire is unhappy about former Geman soldiers being on their property, particularly since her brother is fighting them in Europe. She views her father as a traitor for treating the German POWs as human. At school, her fellow students suggest that all of Claire’s family are traitors for allowing Germans to work on their farm. Claire notices that Karl, who speaks English, is kind and friendly, but she does not reciprocate his kindness. She says:
“I look away,
pick up my pace,
pretend not to notice him.
More worried about being called a traitor
than willing to defend my doubts
than willing to take the risk
of being kind.” (p. 83)
The longer Karl works at the farm, the more relieved he is not to have to serve the Nazi army anymore. Because Karl speaks English, he is singled out by the guards and eventually assigned to help Claire run the farmstand near the road. Karl’s fellow soldiers begin to insult him.
Karl begins to draw insults and ridicule from his fellow soldiers. One of them in particular, Erst, begins to question Karl’s loyalty. When Claire’s family gets word that her brother has died in combat, Ernst and some of the other prisoners joke about the news that an American has fallen. Karl does not join in, though doing so would perhaps reduce the insults. He thinks:
“It’s not my fault
I was born German.
I have only followed orders,
Done what I have been told.
I have always been given plenty of good reasons
to sign up
But my mind flashes to Claire’s face
None of these reasons hold weight anymore.” (p. 151)
And so, we see, in Karl, humanity, empathy, and sympathy winning out. Karl begins to realize that Claire and her family are as human as he is, that grief is something felt on both sides of the war, and that perhaps tribalism is a lie.
The news is devastating, not only for Claire’s family but also for the small-town community she is a part of. The whole town attends the funeral. The chief guard feels a pull to be present as well, and so decides to take the prisoners. They sit in the balcony. At a crucial and somber moment, Ernst drops a hymnal to the floor loudly. It is deliberately disrespectful and he and a few other prisoners smirk at the disruption.
Karl’s poem describes his response:
“My face is red,
now turning to anger
because once again,
who I am
will be determined by the group I belong to.
And my comrades
Even for a few minutes
To be decent.” (p. 176.)
Claire is furious, and her friendship with Karl sours completely. Karl is sorry for the rudeness and wishes he could apologize, but Claire avoids him. Then one day, he is bringing apples in from the orchard and sees through the window of the stock room that Claire is being threatened by someone. Karl enters the stockroom and sees Ernst grabbing her. Karl rushes in to free her, but in that moment, Claire swings the glass bottle she has grabbed hold of and hits Karl instead of Ernst. Once Ernst is taken away, Claire, who hopes to be a nurse someday, sews up the cut on Karl’s forehead.
This is more than a book about hatred turned to tolerance turned to friendship. It’s also a book about the discovery that a tribal enemy is actually human and not the character they were painted to be. There is more to the story, of course, including some twists and turns that will surprise the reader. The book is faithful to depicting the grace and forgiveness that abound in our world, but also the brokenness that we cannot escape from. A fairytale ending might be more emotionally satisfying, but it would not be as true. There is hope, of course. There is always hope. But there is also grief.
Throughout the book, though, the theme remains. Seeing people as people is more important and more true than persisting in seeing them as simplified cartoon versions of themselves that are easier to hate, to ridicule, and to sell short. Even as we sometimes look around us and see wrong-thinking political opponents as dangerous threats or generalize people as part of a particular group until we do not see them at all. This book might open the eyes of young readers (and older ones, too) so that we can see enemies as fellow humans, as people in need, and as brothers and sisters with the potential to work with us to heal this broken world.