Beth Kephart’s Young Adult books are certainly not defined geographically. Dangerous Neighbors takes place in her beloved Philadelphia and draws us into the 1876 Centennial Exposition. From there we move to The Heart is Not a Size and an impoverished town in Juarez, Mexico. Then Small Damages, where a young girl finds herself, both geographically and spiritually, on the outskirts of Seville, Spain. Even her ‘adult’ books can’t stay in one place. Still Love in Strange Places, A Memoir recounts her visit to her husband’s family in El Salvador. Any and all of these books are wonderful reading, literary treats.
So, is it no wonder that her latest YA book, Going Over, takes us to Berlin and life during the era of the Berlin Wall? Ada, her mother and Grandmother (Omi) live in a cramped apartment in West Berlin while the love of Ada’s life, Stefan and his grandmother (and Omi’s best friend) live in East Berlin, separated by the impenetrable Wall. Although not spelled out (but this book inspired me to find out more), West Berlin imported many transient workers in the 1950s and later, to help create the booming economy of a victorious, democratic nation. Many of these workers were from Turkey and their Moslem culture and upbringing were completely foreign (no pun intended) to Germans, thus they never fit in. However they make a sizable community in Germany.
So, in addition to the virtually overnight, arbitrary separation of family and friends caused by the Berlin Wall, the West Germans were dealing with an ethnic group it didn’t understand. Ada is caught up in this as she teaches in a church school attended by some Turkish children, one of whom, Savas has run away. She finds him hiding in the classroom in the wee hours of the morning because he is afraid–afraid of what his father might do to his mother, who is secretly planning on returning to Turkey.
Kephart contrasts the freedom of Ada and her fervent desire that Stefan escape and join her in the West with the fear of living in East Berlin, the Stasi always listening, never knowing who to trust. Ada can visit Stefan, cross the border, only several times a year. Successful escapes are few we learn (5,000 escapes, with 100 unsuccessful tries) and Ada graffs the spectacular successes on a wall facing East Berlin, hoping to inspire Stefan.
What’s Going Over about? It’s about love and freedom and equality. It’s about hardship and struggle and overcoming the odds. It’s about diversity and fitting into a new culture. The writing is true Beth Kephart, literary, descriptive, lyrical. The characters become your friends. You are there! The story grabs your heartstrings on so many levels, Stefan and Ada, Savas, Omi.
Going Over is about a time period that most of us have probably forgotten about. But we really shouldn’t forget. There are real and virtual walls in existence today. Going Over is a great way to remember.