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I first heard of Ryan Graudin‘s YA novel Wolf by Wolf: One girl’s mission to win a race and kill Hitler by reading the Tor.com (I know, I know) article 5 Adrenaline-Pumping YA SFF Survival Books authored by Meg Long. It’s published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, which doesn’t seem to have a direct connection to Tor, but publishing is going in a decidedly singular direction (in spite of certain opinions to the contrary), so it’s hard to be sure.
Of the five books Long listed, Graudin’s seemed to have the most interesting premise, but then again, it was also yet another reworking of “What if Nazi Germany Had Won World War Two?” It’s not like we don’t have a few of those lying around.
The novel, the first in a series, was published in 2015, so enough time has passed for it to be read and reviewed aplenty. For example:
An Amazon Best Book of the Year
A Huffington Post Top Ten YA Book of the Year
“Wild and gorgeous, vivid and consuming. I loved it! I can’t wait for the sequel.” ―Laini Taylor, New York Times bestselling author of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy
“A haunting portrayal of one girl’s courage in the face of a vicious world. I was racing along with Yael until the book’s heart-pounding conclusion. A triumph.” ―Megan Shepherd, author of The Madman’s Daughter
“Ryan Graudin opens one of the darkest chapters in history and spins a what if into an incredible tale of survival, identity, and purpose. This is the kind of book you can’t put down, and the kind that follows you long after you have. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.”―Victoria Schwab, author of The Archived series
“The rush of an action movie combined with a flawlessly executed history, this is the book I’ve been waiting for. I loved WOLF BY WOLF, and I’m not speaking to my friends till they’ve read and loved it too.”
―Jackson Pearce, author of Sisters Red and Tsarina
“WOLF BY WOLF completely immerses the reader in a story they’ll never forget. Filled to the brim with tension and intrigue, nonstop action, and a vivid cast of characters, you’ll feel every bump in the road they ride. I simply couldn’t stop reading–and wherever Ryan Graudin rides next, I’ll follow.”
―Amie Kaufman, New York Times bestselling author of These Broken Stars
If you’ve read enough of my reviews, you know I’m not impressed by accolades such as those above. I’ve read highly acclaimed novels I didn’t think were worth the paper they were printed on (although with inflation, everything’s more expensive these days).
Out of 421 global ratings on Amazon, the book received a staggering 90% of 4 and 5-star reviews. That’s pretty impressive.
Fortunately, my local public library had a copy in their Teen section, so I reserved it.
What can I say? I loved it. A real “page turner.” It’s terrific and it speaks to a topic near and dear to my heart; the Holocaust, the abuse and persecution of Jews (my wife and children are Jewish, so it’s personal).
Technically, it’s not science fiction. In reading the author’s notes at the end of the story, it seems that making the heroine Yael a “skinshifter” was the last thing she considered. She did a ton of research, even learning to shoot the same handgun Yael uses in the book. Most of the action takes place on a motorcycle race between Germania (Berlin) and Tokyo, so Graudin rode a motorcycle once to get a small feel for the experience.
Yael is a Jewish girl who, with her mother, was delivered to one of Hitler’s death camps in 1944. She was experimented on by a fictionalized version of Josef Mengele. He was trying to find a way to change the appearance of anyone to the “Aryan ideal” of blond haired, blue eyes, super-racist. An unanticipated side effect is that she learned how to shift her appearance.
She still can only imitate other females and can’t greatly increase or reduce her height and weight. However a German Jewish girl can imitate even a Japanese girl.
The story toggles between the past starting in 1944 and the present, which for the sake of the book, is 1956. She takes the place of the previous year’s winner Adele Wolfe. If Yael as Adele wins (again) this year, she will have the honor of dancing at the celebration with Adolf Hitler himself. It’s the only time Hitler will be without his bodyguards in a public place long enough for be assassinated.
Yael finds she can imitate Adele’s appearance well enough, but not the complex interweaving of relationships, especially with Adele’s brother Felix and her chief rival in the race (and Adele’s brief lover) Luka. In spite of the fact that for years, she’s been trained with all the weapons of war to kill, overcoming her humanity and compassion is a continual struggle.
As I mentioned, the book is well researched, although I’m hardly an expert on Nazi Germany, motorcycles, or teenage girls. It’s sometimes agonizing when you want Yael to do something “dirty” to an opponent so she can win and she bungles it. On the other hand, it’s all too human of her. Even though she was brutalized as a child at the hands of the Nazis and lost everyone she ever loved, she still didn’t turn into a monster (even if she sometimes thinks she did).
I won’t spoil the climax, but Graudin does deliver a masterful twist. She also sets the end up for the sequel Blood for Blood (Wolf ends on something of a cliffhanger). I found out there’s an “e-novella tie-in to Ryan Graudin’s acclaimed novel WOLF BY WOLF” called Iron to Iron.
On her About page, she describes herself, in part, as:
Hello! I’m Ryan. This is me in a nutshell.
In the book’s Acknowledgements, she ends with:
To my family — thank you for loving me and nurturing this dream. To my God — thank you for giving me this dream in the first place. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone).
Oh, for those of you who may be Christian-phobic or Religion-phobic, there’s practically no mention of those topics at all. There is only one small memory Yael has of attending a Passover Seder when she was very young, but that’s it.
In a world where popular entertainment including much of the publishing industry disdains and vilifies Christians, it’s refreshing to not only see a critically acclaimed book by a believer, but her being able to directly associate her faith with her writing and professional identity.
While “Wolf by Wolf” is considered “teen fiction” and Amazon lists it as a Teacher’s pick for K-8th grade (it’s sufficiently dark that I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone younger than twelve or thirteen), at my ripe old age, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Seventeen-year-old Yael is far from a perfect person and battles both her inner demons and the external circumstances of life every day, but she is a hero. The two main males in the book, Felix and Luka are also complex and nuanced, never what they seem on the surface. This book certainly isn’t a case of building up a “strong female character” by making all males either evil or buffoons. These are actual, relatable personalities.
I’m proud to give “Wolf by Wolf” five stars, two thumbs up, and whatever other praise I can. Well done, Ryan. Wonderful writing.
Given how one Tennessee school board has recently removed Art Spiegelman’s Maus from their school libraries and how Whoopi Goldberg‘s rather uneducated comments on the Holocaust got her suspected from The View for two weeks, maybe both that school district and this celebrity might benefit from reading Graudin’s book.