Werner and his sister live in an orphanage in the 1930s in a small German town where they put their white heads together late at night and secretly listen to the radio that Werner has pieced together out of the odds and ends he’s found on scavenging jaunts in the area. They love to listen to the old professor teach them about science and the wonders of the universe. As the neighbors begin to learn about Werner’s mechanical genius, he has opportunities to repair all different kinds of radios. Although he loves to learn, he knows that when he reaches his dreaded 15th birthday, he will go into the mines where his father was killed, and he will be fated to work underground for the rest of his life, just like all the other boys in his town. His world changes the night a German officer calls for him to repair his beautiful radio, even though several professional repairmen have failed. When Werner is successful, the officer arranges for him to go to a boarding school for boys who will be special soldiers in Hitler’s army.
Marie-Laure and her father live in Paris, where her father is the master locksmith for the Museum of Natural Sciences. Although Marie-Laure loses her eyesight when she is six, her father encourages her to be independent and curious, never giving in to her disability. He brings her books to read in Braille and builds a scale model of their area of Paris, perfect in every tiny detail, so that she can memorize her surroundings and find her way to and from anywhere. She is fascinated by the museum, particularly by the treasure that rests behind many locks: a blue jewel with fire in its heart. Does it really carry the curse of legend?
The swirl of world events causes Marie-Laure and Werner to leave their familiar homes and go out into strange places, and Doerr tells their tales in alternating chapters. They are both intelligent young people with family and friends who love them, but in the end, it is their strength of character that determines the choices they make throughout trials that most of us living in peacetime never have to face. The reader knows from the very first chapter that they end up—separately— on a French island that is under a bombing assault from American forces, but their journey to that place and time is slowly revealed over the course of the novel.
When I first heard about All the Light We Cannot See, I said, “Oh, no. Not another World War II book.” Later, when I started hearing rave reviews and then it became a National Book Award finalist, I had to put my name on the holds list at number 179! This is an adult novel, but last month it won an Alex Award, which means that it also has great crossover appeal for teens—if they can get past the 544 page count. The writing is extremely detailed, particularly in Marie-Laure’s chapters, as the reader needs to be able to experience the world through the tiny clues that she receives through her ears and her fingers. I had to tell myself to slow down and soak it in. It’s well worth it. Both protagonists are heartbreakingly brave, and the plot development and ending are not at all predictable. This is a work of great beauty, love, and sorrow, and I am so glad that I made room for yet another World War II book.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.