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  • The Impossible Legacy: Identity and Purpose in Autobiographical Children’s Literature Set in the Third Reich and the Second World War
  • Jill P. May
The Impossible Legacy: Identity and Purpose in Autobiographical Children’s Literature Set in the Third Reich and the Second World War, by Gillian Lathey. Berne, Berlin: Peter Lang, 1999. 258 pp. $41.95.

The Impossible Legacy promises its readers a survey of autobiographical British and German children’s literature about the Third Reich, its role in World War II, and its contemporary heritage. A scholarly study would continue the earlier work of Mary Cadogan (Women and Children First, 1978), Christa Kamenetsky (Children’s Literature in Hitler’s Germany, 1984), Ann Stalcup (On the Home Front, 1998), and Jack Zipes (Fairy Tales and Fables from Weimar Days, 1989). Thus, The Impossible Legacy could enlighten the reader about contemporary children’s literature and its link to the past. Instead, Gillian Lathey’s presentation leaves her reader with a feeling of frustration, anger, and disheartenment.

Lathey proposes to discuss children’s literature by authors who have created “German and English language autobiographical texts” (p. 18). That conversation is flawed by her inaccurate and misleading establishment of perimeters for her analysis. Format design, literary definitions, and interpretative discussions also weaken Lathey’s book. Altogether, the book lacks careful editing. For instance, bibliographic citation format is not consistent throughout, and the book does not have an index that allows the reader to cross-reference Lathey’s varied discussions of one author or title throughout her book. In addition, Lathey randomly uses theory from some well-known continental [End Page 165] literary scholars while totally ignoring theorists who have studied Holocaust literature and literature of the Third Reich. Jacques LaCann, Jacqueline Rose, and John Stephens are used to establish reading practices, but works by Alan L. Berger, Lawrence Langer, and Sem Dresden are ignored. Cadogan and Kamenetsky are referenced, but Zipes and Stalcup are not.

From the beginning, Lathey expresses her personal disappointment in contempo rary British attitudes about Germans and their responsibilities for the war. She claims that British authors and publishers have been largely interested in creating youthful stories of British citizens as those people who were involved in “a just war . . . fought against an evil enemy” (p. 17). German children’s literature about the war, she argues, largely deals with the “collective guilt” of the German people. Because Lathey is most interested in “the differentiation of German experience and the paradoxes of denial, shame and personal trauma . . . matched by evidence of the residual British mistrust of Germans” (p. 17), she begins by limiting her discussion to “those [texts] published between 1970 and 1995” (p. 31). However, she writes, “More detailed reference is occasionally made to texts which fall outside this period in the interests of tracing development, notably Hans-Peter Richter’s seminal autobiographical novel Damals war es Friedrich (1961, published in English translation as Friedrich, 1970)” (p. 31). Thus, her timeline does not restrict her inquiry of earlier publications. Further, Lathey has said she will use only “English language titles . . . which have been published in the UK” and examine books that are “British and German accounts” (p. 17). However, she notes that she will use children’s and adolescent literature by “Jewish writers who were first published in the USA” (p. 31) and who now live in the United States. Her explorations of Jewish writing fall outside her earlier established geographic boundaries. Thus Lathey sets Jews inside her boundaries and causes their autobiography to be viewed as “universal” or “the other” tale.

Lathey attempts to place texts by Jews who write about the Jewish experience during World War II in a category of “narrative therapy” (pp. 47–87) and to downplay the importance of these stories as historical memory. She maintains that these authors are trying “to re-establish contact with the childhood self” (p. 19), and she argues,

For Jewish writers who suffered enforced exile and the necessary adoption of a second language, linguistic dispossession did indeed become “dispossession of one’s self” in the forging of a new identity, a process which, as we shall see, had lasting consequences. . . . Linguistic dispossession during childhood is...

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pp. 165-168
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