“England and her Allies aren’t just fighting the Axis countries – they’re fighting the evil spirits that have laid hold of Germany and Italy and Japan.”
War always turns things on their heads. Real life during WWII was especially good at turning things inside out and upside down. During that creatively brutal time, so many stranger-than-fiction things happened to real people, and stories from that period have produced a unique genre. A bit fantasy, a bit dystopian, a bit chaotic, a bit epic, and a lot incredible. When reading living history books from that period, a reader must brace himself for a story that is likely to explore psychologically deep topics and layers of suffering. Enemy Brothers by Constance Savery is fiction. In any other genre this story would seem contrived. In this literary niche, it sounds entirely plausible.
“There were lots and lots of people like Mortimer in the world, people who suffered because other people thought war glorious.”
Ten and a half years before WWII, the Ingleford family were on vacation at the seaside. An old school friend of Mrs. Ingleford watched the family play and begged them to let her have the 18-month-old toddler. The friend, Anna Eckermann, had been married for many years and was childless. Mrs. Ingleford was mother to twin newborn babies, an 18-month-old toddler, and an older son and daughter, as well as the five stepchildren from her husband’s first marriage. Of course the Inglefords refused to let Anna adopt the 18-month-old, Tony. A few days later, Tony was stolen without a trace. While searching for his son, Mr. Ingleford was tragically killed in a car accident and one daughter was crippled for life. Mrs. Ingleford was grief stricken and could not bear the double loss. In her delicate postpartum state, she failed to thrive and followed her husband to the grave. All of this happens off-scene before the story begins and we learn it as RAF Airman Dymory Ingleford recounts it to a navy captain. The retelling is quick and delicate. Adults could unpack that if they chose to, but young readers would probably just let it be what it is without investigating the details too closely. Frankly, these first few pages are a challenging opening to what ends up being a complicated story. Savery is a compelling story teller, but the set-up of this plot is confusing.
The story opens during World War II. Royal Air Force pilot Dymory Ingleford is visiting his shipman brother Ginger (these are nicknames – like a good Russian novel, practically everyone has 2 or 3 names) on his wartime vessel while they are in port. We learn immediately that Ginger’s crew has picked up a ship of teen boys. A crew of Norwegian boys has been forced into labor in a Nazi munitions factory. The boys are overseen by a Hitler Youth bully. Desperate to stand up to Nazi Germany, the Norwegians sabotage their plant and escape in a small boat in the middle of the night. To avoid recapture, they forcibly require the Hitler Youth, Max Eckermann, to join them. When they are rescued by the British Allies, no one is quite sure what to do with Max, the 13-year-old prisoner of war.
In any other story, it would seem impossible that Max Eckermann could possibly be the kidnapped Tony Ingleford… but this is WWII and plots like this are not that hard to believe. While it takes nearly 300 pages for Max to admit that he is Tony, we are convinced almost immediately.
Savery helps us to see the war-torn landscape with clarity by comparing it to an old German legend of two swords from Tales from the Nibelungenlied.
“There was a sword in the story, the sword of Balmung, stolen from the treasure hoard. It was the sword of conquest and, wherever it went, it brought woe and destruction. That is the very sword Germany’s using today. She’s fighting with the sword Balmung. The United Nations are using another sword, Chrysaor, the golden sword of Justice.”
This long and complicated story is beautifully, powerfully, and masterfully written. The primary focus of the story is on the complexities of helping a child disassociate from a dishonest origin story and the legalistic inculturation that Germany foisted upon all of her children. Dym, of all the characters, best understands that Max/Tony has to unlearn everything he knew and that his spirit could not be compelled to renounce his indoctrination. He would have to chose to put the sword of Balmung down and pick up the sword of Chrysaor. For almost 11 years, a child grew up believing all of the lies that he was told and so his hurt, anger, disbelief, and resistance are justified. Dym counsels his family to show Tony how Chrysaor really works by showing him compassion, mercy, and loving boundaries.
“…(in Germany) the sword of Balmung is forced into every hand.”
Tony, understandably, tries to run away more than once. He has been indoctrinated to believe the worst of the English and to believe that the mercy they are showing him is a sign of weakness and manipulation. No matter what Tony says or does to Dym, Dym continues to be long suffering, wise, patient, and committed to the task of helping Tony shed the lies that have made him so angry and bitter.
“…he felt that he was in a dark place being drawn ever nearer to some unseen power more terrible than the danger that had lurked in the marshes long ago.”
Like a cat, Dym offers Tony 9 lives. 9 opportunities to run away before he will be confronted with Dym’s big fight and strong consequences. It is not an invitation to run, but an acknowledgement that it is an inescapable reality of someone who has been raised to be something other than what he truly is. The journey home would be hard, painful, but full of mercy, love, and understanding.
The family dynamic in this story is beautiful. We see siblings of all shapes and sizes. Because it is a big old house in the country, it is also filled with cousins and evacuees. The texture of the home is a big, happy, messy stand for England, freedom, and God.
This book requires some maturity. I would say that it is appropriate for readers who have emotionally engaged with The Hobbit, The Wingfeather Saga, and books where real darkness is lurking and perfectly imperfect characters have to work through their flaws. The book is non-violent and mostly pastoral, but the bombs do drop nearby, and the chaos in Max/Tony’s heart and mind are sufficiently burdensome to be heavy for a young reader. My nine year old listened to the audio along with me but he is emotionally tough and not as sensitive as some of his peers.
“…the world has a Chief who was victorious when the powers of darkness struck at Him with everything they had. He has the plans today. The darkness won’t last forever. There’s a splendor beyond.”
A hard but very worthy book, it is brilliantly written and easily one of my favorite WWII books.