Alberta author Karen Bass’s latest novel is a character-rich story about a 16-year-old boy struggling with anger, loyalty, and rebellion. What makes Graffiti Knight different is the setting: Soviet-occupied Eastern Germany in 1947.
Wilm and his impoverished family live in a tiny flat in war-ravaged Leipzig. His father is a crippled, bitter war veteran, his sister an emotionally paralyzed victim of the Soviet invasion, and his mother a ghost-like figure fighting to keep the family together. The only people in Wilm’s world with any power are the Soviet occupiers and the brutal collaborationist East German police; everyone else compromises and tries to get by.
Minor acts of rebellion give Wilm a thrill and offer him a sense of power that he is otherwise lacking. Unfortunately, the minor vandalism he and his friends see as a game escalates dangerously. Suddenly, Wilm finds himself dragging his family and friends into a deadly race to escape across the border into the American zone.
The characters in Graffiti Knight are multi-faceted and their motivations complex. Wilm, in particular, represents an excellent portrayal of how teenage anger can sometimes lead to stupidity. In attempting to assert his individuality, Wilm is seduced by the power he feels carrying out acts of sabotage. But does that mean he is the same as the enemies he is trying to outwit? Even if his speech is occasionally too modern for 1947, Wilm is a thoroughly believable character who invokes the reader’s sympathy (and a sense of frustration at his actions).
Bass has artfully recreated an historical time and place peopled by realistic, three-dimensional characters grappling with their own emotions and global forces they can only barely understand.