With five starred reviews, this was an easy auto-contenda to spot. Rappaport looks at the active, heroic roles Jewish people played during the years of the Holocaust. She shares 21 stories — many involving teens and young children — of the Jewish Resistance that took place across Europe during the Second World War. In a year that has been tremendous for nonfiction writing for teens, this is an important title. It’s a memorable read, and it’s a beautiful book. In the end, though, I don’t think I would be able to make the case for Beyond Courage if I were sitting at the Printz table on the RealCommittee.
This is everything we would expect in such an important read: a beautifully designed reading experience, carefully organized and thorough back matter, solid writing. Although I only had an ARC, it’s possible to tell – even from the low resolution pictures — that everything has been carefully chosen and placed just so on the page. Some of the images, as pixellated as they were, still stopped me cold as I read; they were that arresting. (I know I have asked before, why does every nonfiction title have to look like a textbook. In this instance, I’m completely down with the decision; this book works on a visual level.) With a pronunciation guide, extensive source notes, and a helpful chronology, Rappaport provides context and opportunities for further exploration. Her writing is solid; she is telling engaging stories, some published for the first time.
Beyond Courage is particularly successful in the portions that detail the Bielski Camp in Poland, the tunnel dug in the Novogrudok Labor Camp, and the account of the Warsaw uprising. These particular stories flow; they’re gripping reading from start to finish, and the clarity with which she shares all the details makes it seem like it was an easy book to write. We get a real sense of the participants in each section: Tuvia Bielski’s determination, Idel Kagan’s stubbornness, Mordechai Anielewicz’s defiance. As readers, we see how complicated it was to mount a resistance, how easy it would have been to give up, and what an immense difference these people’s efforts made. These sections do what all excellent nonfiction should do: they bring events to life, make the reader feel like they know the historical figures. As the very wise Joy Piedmont wrote last week, “good nonfiction, like fiction, is transformative.” These sections are transformative reading.
It’s no coincidence, however, that these are three of the longer sections of the book. With 21 stories to tell, Rappaport is juggling a lot of information. Sometimes, the stories Rappaport shares aren’t as smooth; they just don’t have the time, the page count, to develop and grow in the telling. She’s trying to cover too much information in a small number of pages. The narrative feels somewhat scattershot, racing around Europe. The historical figures don’t always take on a living, breathing three dimensionality, which makes the reading experience uneven.
There are numerous times when figures mentioned earlier in the text pop back in without any context or acknowledgement. For example, there are two sections that cover resistance activity in Annemasse. The Mayor of the town, Jean Deffaugt, figures in both, but Rappaport never helps the reader see his thread running through those two stories. Similarly, Hertz Jospa is brought up twice. At first, Rappaport describes the work he did in founding (with his wife, Hava) the Jewish Defense Committee (CDJ). The story changes focus to CDJ activities generally, and the Jospas are dropped from the narrative. Eighty pages later, we return to Jospa, but there’s no affirmation that we’ve read about this man already, no explicit connection made. (I also found myself wondering what happened to Hava Jospa, and their son, Paul; they disappear around the page 30 mark.) The story of Jospa’s three-man train ambush is astounding, but I had to detour back to page 30 to make sure I was remembering his name correctly. These small details make the narrative feel choppy — slightly haphazard — and result in a narrative that could be clearer, stronger.
Rappaport’s writing is solid; it’s engaging. It never goes beyond that. The importance of the topic, the genuine drama inherent in the true life close calls of history, and the colossally brave people take the book far — five stars far, in fact. But taken with the larger flaws — the uneven narrative and haphazard organization — Beyond Courage just doesn’t go far enough when seen through a literary lens. This is an important read. It’s a very good read. But it’s not quite strong enough to make the final five titles of the year.