Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Book Review: GREENHORN by Anna Olswanger

First Paragraph: “I don’t know what’s so important the rebbe couldn't let us finish the inning,” Ruben whispered to his brother Bernie. “Now the fifth grade’s playing stickball in our part of the yard.”

Anna Olswanger will be here Thursday to face the 7 Questions.

This is going to be a difficult review, Esteemed Reader. I've been staring at the screen now for more than ten minutes, uncertain how to begin. I've just read Greenhorn for a second time and I'm devastated. I didn't cry, but I have no doubt many readers will. 

Originally, I wrote Anna Olswanger in hopes of having her be one of our weekly literary agents. Alas, she's taking on few new clients. But it turns out she doesn't just represent authors, she is one. I don't know what kind of agent she is, but Anna Olswanger is an incredibly gifted author. Agent authors have become authors to watch for me as I admired Mitchell's License by Holly McGhee and Girl Parts by John Cusick (review coming soon).

Greenhorn is a middle grade novel set in a Jewish school in Brooklyn, 1946. And this happens:

Rabbi Ehrlich cleared his throat. “We have twenty boys coming to us from Poland—” he began, then wiped his eyes again. “Their parents died in concentration camps.”
For a moment, everybody kept quiet. Then Irving, the guy in the back row, raised his hand. “My mama’s afraid our cousins back in Poland got sent to a concentration camp. So how come they’re called camps, Rebbe? Camp is where kids are supposed to spend the summer eating chocolate pudding dessert.”

The preceding paragraph is on page two so if you're a parent who somehow began reading this book aloud to your too-young child without investigating the book beforehand, you still have a chance to turn back. If a librarian or book store employee is reading this book to a group, you can quietly excuse your four-year-old. Olswanger is firing a warning shot across the nose and it's good that she does as there are some grizzly aspects to this story (by virtue of history):

“My p-p-papa told me about how the Nazis killed the Jews in concentration camps. He said the Nazis were evil p-p-people. He said they were so evil they experimented with cutting the ff-fat from dead people’s bodies to make soap.”

The Ninja is not a yet a parent, but I am a fun uncle, and I can't imagine telling my nieces and nephews about the holocaust. Let their parents do it!!! But someone needs to. Part of raising and educating a child is telling them how the world is and isn't. To not tell a child about slavery, the trail of tears, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and all the other terrible tales of our history is to not prepare them for the world they've been brought into. And if you're raising Americans, make sure they know the Nazis were not history's only society of racist, murderous fiends.

Greenhorn is the perfect tool for parents and educators to introduce younger children to the holocaust. Waiting for a child to reach adolescence and then giving them Eli Wiesel's Night is throwing them in the deep end of the pool. Giving children Greenhorn at an earlier age allows them to dip their feet and not get completely sucked under.

Greenhorn is set in Brooklyn at a yeshiva, after all, and removed from the worst events of the period.  Our narrator is Aaron, who has big dreams not involving the holocaust:

"See, I want to be a r-r-rabbi like my papa when I grow up. Ruben and Bernie and all the guys would laugh if they knew. How does a guy who s-s-stutters get to be a rabbi?”

Meet Daniel, Aaron's new friend and newly orphaned immigrant from Poland. He's got secrets, most prominently a small, tin mystery box:

Ruben said, “me and Bernie and the guys are starting to wonder if you got loose marbles or something. It’s okay for our little sister to go around holding a blanket because she’s only three years old, but what’s with you? How come you can’t let that box out of your sight?”

Greenhorn is a short book and you'll finish it in half an hour. I'm not going to tell you what's in Daniel's mystery box or whether or not Aaron learns to control his stutter. Olswanger's is a quick jab, designed to knock the wind out of you, and then to be read again for full understanding. 

This concludes my review: Greenhorn is a powerful book that should be in libraries everywhere. It's a great tool for teachers and parents.

I have two points I want to make for writers and then we'll call it a day. First, although Greenhorn is a short book, it's not a trite book. I'm not going to tell you the contents of Daniel's box, but knowing the subject of this story, you can likely infer whatever's inside is the result of awful. And it is. The contents of the box hit the reader between eyes (and I was already flinching), and are gruesome enough to be honest about the Holocaust. That's crucial.

Second, it is not enough for Olswanger to write "the holocaust was bad." Of course it was. This isn't a history, it's a story. As such, there are characters with goals and a mystery to draw the reader in, followed by a satisfying conclusion. The reason Greenhorn works is because it's a story first, Holocaust memorial second.  And because it's a story, Olswanger can end it on an upbeat note as not to leave younger readers totally depressed. 

I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Greenhorn:

"You think you’re going on the Quiz Kids Show for knowing all there is to know about synagogues? Talk about something else, Gravel Mouth.”

Ruben’s and Bernie’s eyes popped open like the tops of soda bottles.

First, Bernie and Ruben started to snore like trains pulling out from Marcy Avenue. Then Daniel made a rustling sound that meant he was sliding his tin box under his pillow.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 


  1. Sounds like a great, moving story. I'm Jewish and grew up in the 1960's and 1970's reading many sad stories like this. Yes, we need to teach our children about these terrible things so they don't forget and can do whatever they can in their own ways to see it doesn't happen again.

    Glad your comment box popped up today. Sometimes I can only like the posts.

    1. I've had the same thing happen, Natalie (and Robert). So many great posts that I haven't commented on~ just know that they're all fabulous, Ninja! :)

  2. This book sounds both heartbreaking and hopeful. I'll be reading it as soon as possible. Thanks so much for featuring it!


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.