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Gabrielle Schramm lives in the kind of family that encourages intellectual curiosity and exploration. Her father is a scientist who works with Albert Einstein and loves to probe the mysteries of the universe. As for Gaby, she loves to read --- often more than one book at a time --- so much that she sometimes gets in trouble for reading novels or poetry when she should be studying. But Gaby has little clue at the start of her story just how contentious reading --- and books --- will become over the next several months of her life.

It’s 1932, and Gaby is starting to realize that things are changing in Berlin. She doesn’t understand everything that’s going on, but she knows that Hitler’s Brown Shirts (the private army forces known as the Sturmabteilung, or SA) often take over movie theaters and clubs, that comments belittling the work of Einstein and other “Jewish physicists” are becoming more popular, and that she herself, with her pale blond braids, has been receiving more comments about her appealing (i.e., Aryan) looks.

When Gaby’s older sister becomes romantically involved with a young Nazi sympathizer, and when Einstein starts talking about emigrating to America, Gabrielle begins to understand the extent of the changes the rising Nazi party will have on her life. But when the Nazis start burning books --- some of the very books Gabrielle treasures --- the real horror of the nascent Nazi regime finally sinks in. Can the Schramms continue to explore their intellectual pursuits in this new society?

In ASHES, Kathryn Lasky thoughtfully interweaves Gabrielle’s growing understanding of the adult world --- especially surrounding issues of sexuality --- with her increasing awareness of other adult concerns: politics, betrayal, divided loyalties and threats to freedom. Gaby is a sophisticated but believable narrator who uses a “Diary of Shame” to chronicle the events she witnesses that compromise her own sense of morality. She writes, “I feel as though I am seeing things I shouldn’t see. I feel that somehow I have stumbled into the wrong place, the wrong world. I am a peeper, a voyeur….”

As she observes the rapidly changing world around her, she gains a new sense of the moral intricacies of her society, even as she uses her father’s (and Einstein’s) insights to maintain perspective: “How much simpler the rest of the universe felt compared to this small part here on Earth. I picked up my binoculars and turned them toward the night sky that was puddled with light, adrift with shoals of stars. What were we, I thought, but a speck in an insignificant galaxy, among countless galaxies with millions perhaps billions of stars.”

ASHES, which includes real-life historical figures (and several others inspired by history) among its cast of characters and opens each chapter with an excerpt from one of Gaby’s beloved books, is a moving exploration of some pretty profound questions. The narrator’s own enthusiasm for learning undoubtedly will inspire readers to explore history, literature, the universe and their relationship to their own worlds and experiences.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 4, 2010

by Kathryn Lasky

  • Publication Date: February 17, 2011
  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Puffin
  • ISBN-10: 0142411124
  • ISBN-13: 9780142411124