Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin (Orion Children’s Books/Hachette Children’s Group) is a book with a genuinely fascinating and deceptively simple premise: what if Hitler hadn’t been defeated? Graudin’s book picks up the story in 1956, with the Nazis controlling most of the world and Hitler flaunting his power in President Snow-style, using an annual motorcycle race across the globe as a propaganda exercise. It is this race which provides Yael, a young concentration camp escapee, with the opportunity of a lifetime: kill Hitler and save the world.
As if this doesn’t sound bizarre enough, Yael, having been experimented on while imprisoned, has the power to “skin shift,” assuming the appearance of anyone she has seen. Rather than using this as the origin story of a triumphant superhero, Wolf by Wolf, appropriately for its subject matter, shows the tragedy this creates; while Yael escapes thanks to her newfound abilities, those she loves are left behind, and she carries this with her even 10 years later.
“Yael never did find out why Dr Geyer chose her. Why she – out of all the young children who stumbled out of the train cars and clung to their mothers’ coats that night – was placed in the line of the living.
But it did not take her long to discover what she’d been marked for.”
Wolf by Wolf is a kind of anti-Boy in Striped Pyjamas with a far savvier protagonist and less of a need to mirror real-life. The alternative history genre allows Graudin scope to tell a truly original story: one which begins with the heartbreak and suffering of the concentration camp. These scenes are harrowing, giving understandable context for Yael’s later actions. Graudin strikes a compelling balance between emotional flashbacks and the fast-paced urgency of the motorbike race, in which violence and double-crossing keep things moving briskly towards a dramatic conclusion.
Let’s talk about Yael. For one thing, the point where her assumed identity – that of Adele Wolfe, celebrated first female victor of the motorcycle race – ends and Yael’s begins is difficult to pin down; she has, after all, spent most of her life being forced to lie about who and what she is. Yael is a compellingly flawed protagonist, loyal to her “wolves” (the loved ones she has lost) but hugely ambivalent in her actions later on. Many of the things she does could be read as both heroic and villainous, and it is this moral ambiguity which makes her so interesting. In fact, nearly everyone in the book is morally ambiguous, with the reader no more sure than Yael when it comes to who can be trusted. Those seeking greater moral complexity in YA fiction need look no further.
Wolf by Wolf represents something completely different and original in YA; I am aware of counter-historical books focusing on WW2 in adult fiction, but it’s not an area which has been mined much in writing for younger readers. There are no love triangles here; no emotional manipulation of the reader; no unrealistic-sounding inner monologue. Like stepping out of the house on an unexpectedly cold day, Wolf by Wolf will catch you unaware and make you shiver.
If none of this has convinced you to read this book, first of all I am deeply offended. How many times do I need to use the word “compelling” for you to trust me? However, I have one more weapon in my persuasive armoury. Ryan Graudin, while participating in a Twitter chat on YA fiction, described Wolf by Wolf in a way which should make everybody want to read it: “Man in the High Castle meets Inglourious Basterds with a dash of X-Men. AKA let’s kill Hitler on wheels.” Now go and buy it.