As a middle- and high-school English teacher, I am always on the lookout for books to add to my classroom library. To make the cut, I tell my students a book must have high literary, historical, or spiritual value. Preferably all three. So when I read the first lines of author Dana VanderLugt’s just-released debut middle grade novel, Enemies in the Orchard, a World War II novel in verse (ZonderKidz, 2023), I knew it was destined for my shelf.
“I am from hand-me-downs,
soft McIntosh apples simmered down to sauce,
and crisp, hard Cortlands eaten straight off the tree.
From the cold wind wiggling its way
into the second-story bedroom of our old farmhouse…”
So begin 13-year-old Claire DeBoer’s reflections on growing up on a Michigan apple orchard in 1944. While Claire’s older brother is overseas fighting, German POW’s are put to work in her family’s apple orchard. Among them is 17-year-old Karl Hartmann, who arrives in America surprised to discover that its cities have not in fact been flattened by German bombs as he’d been led to believe by Nazi propaganda. Each poem alternates between Claire and Karl’s points of view, giving readers an intimate look at their families, the war, and their changing feelings toward each other.
While Claire, who wants to be a nurse, and Karl, who wants to provide for his family, initially mistrust each other, they slowly begin to see each other not as enemies, but as individuals caught up in a conflict much larger than themselves. Karl also questions the beliefs with which he’d been raised as a member of the Hitler Youth, a club indented to indoctrinate children in Nazi ideology. As Karl later promises,
o prove that Germany may be my Fatherland,
but Hitler is not my father.
to be not just the German who speaks English,
but the German who is not a Nazi.
I pledge to be myself,
almost a man,
determined to do better
with the rest of his life.”
VanderLugt’s novel was inspired by the German prisoners who once helped pick apples on the 200-acre Michigan farm managed by her grandfather. At the end of her novel, she recounts how, from 1943 to 1946, 425,000 POW’s (including some Italians) were transported to more than 500 U.S. labor camps to solve the labor shortage caused by American men being at war. It also includes a historic Oct. 31, 1945, Michigan train wreck that killed 16 of those prisoners.
Through her thought-provoking characters and lyrical verse, VanderLugt offers the hope that people who were once enemies can achieve a lasting peace by laying down their weapons, along with their prejudices, to embrace their common humanity – an important message for today.
Meadow Rue Merrill is the author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, and of the Lantern Hill Farm picture book series, celebrating the holidays with activities that build children’s faith. She writes and reads in a little house in the big woods of Midcoast Maine. Catch her and her books this Saturday, Oct. 28, from 10 a.m. to noon at Brackett’s Market in Bath, Maine. Or, find her books at: meadowrue.com