Ashes is told by precocious 13 year old Gaby Schramm, growing up in 1930s Berlin. Her father is a professor and often works with Albert Einstein. But a growing darkness in Berlin is starting to encroach on Gaby's idyllic life. Public book burnings. Uprisings against Jewish scholars and shopkeepers. A beloved literature teacher pushing Hitler Youth meetings. And her older sister and her boyfriend seem to be harboring a few secrets, too. Gaby watches as the world begins to collapse around her in the prelude to World War II.
Once takes place well into WWII, beginning in Poland in 1942. Felix is 10 years old and was put in a Catholic orphanage over three years ago to wait in safety until his Jewish parents could return. Felix knows little about what's going on outside of the orphanage and, tired of waiting for his parents, runs away with his precious notebook filled with imagined stories of his parents' exploits in tow. As he searches desperately for his parents, Felix is confronted with the full brutality of the Nazis, witnessing murders and mass graves, and rescuing a surly little girl from a burning house where her parents died. When they reach the city, Felix is still valiantly hoping to find his parents, but is instead confronted with the realities of a ghetto, where the few children left must be hidden in basements to protect them from the trains that would otherwise carry them away.
These are two starkly different looks at WWII in Europe, and once again both cover this familiar territory in fresh new ways. Ashes is a somewhat conventional coming of age story, made remarkable by the time it is set. Once is horrific, as it explores the brutality of the war through the eyes of an innocent child, and doesn't pull any punches.
I enjoyed the complexity of the characters in Ashes, as no one, even the Nazi sympathizers, and one-dimensional. I especially liked that Gaby is both a voracious reader and an excellent student of math and science. So often in books characters are reduced to liking one or the other, their love of books or science used as a sort of shorthand for their personalities. The inclusion of Albert Einstein was done very well, and didn't feel stilted or gimmicky like other fictional appearances of real life characters can be.
Once is absolutely beautiful and horrifying. On one level it's a rather simplistic story, as it's told through the uncomprehending eyes of 10 year old Felix, whose naivety is compounded by his isolation in the remote orphanage for almost four years. While Gaby is on the verge of being a young woman at the onset of the war, Felix is still very much a child. Reading his innocent descriptions of what as an adult reader I know were untold atrocities is disconcerting and extremely effective.