Book review: David and Jonathan, by Cynthia Voigt

On my vacation to Italy and Prague, my traveling companion gave me this book to read, describing it simply as “a novel.” It turned out to deal in a large part with the Holocaust and suicide, bookended with flash-forwards to the aftermath of torture and war crimes — not exactly the usual fare for summer vacation reading, but not a surprise from my traveling companion, who knows me well enough to give recommendations that initially appear to be outside my area of interest, then turn out to be favorites. (Feed by Mira Grant, for instance. It took me ages to pick it up, because I have less-than-zero interest in zombies, but I was rewarded as it turned out to be focused on how a presidential campaign is run in a post-apocalyptic world, with some great insight into what’s changed and what’s the same for voters. Politics!)

Anyway, despite the heavy subject material and potential trigger areas for me, I appreciated the opportunity to read David and Jonathan, which I found poignant, moving, and a great treatise on some of life’s most difficult questions: how to deal with humanity’s ongoing atrocities, and what’s the point of trying to live in such a world, anyway. I could also see why one would re-read it multiple times after encountering it as a teenager, as my traveling companion has. Yes, it is mostly Jonathan talking (and I can’t remember any teenage boys talking the way he does), but The Breakfast Club is mostly talking too, right? Still a classic.

In junior high, I had a Holocaust fixation, reading a lot of YA fiction books about it. (The most formative one that I still find value in re-reading is North to Freedom — also called David — by Anne Holm. Another one I remember best is the Dear America book One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping.) Eventually I started encountering books not meant for children, and I was sufficiently traumatized to stop looking for such stories.

But David and Jonathan is a different kind of book about the Holocaust — set just a decade or so after the end of the war, with a whole generation of Jews struggling with PTSD and crushing grief. And the book is told from the POV of a Christian boy — Henry — whose best friend (Jonathan) is Jewish, and he wrestles with whether or not he should feel guilty and his family’s attitudes. He also realizes the distinction between referring to “concentration camps” (used by his family) and “death camps” (used by Jonathan’s family). This is a time when the details of those camps were still not widely known or discussed.

Jonathan’s family takes in one of the only survivors on his mother’s side, someone they long thought lost — David, a 20-year-old who did not end up inside the camps, but was hidden and maltreated until he was discovered when he was 14 (weighing 60 pounds), and then moved to a displaced persons’ camp until he was brought to America, where he was put in a psychiatric hospital for a while, with multiple suicide attempts.

It sounds terribly depressing, in summary: David, a Holocaust survivor, but so profoundly damaged that he can only express himself by destruction and hurting others, until finally he succeeds in suicide. (And I was indeed grateful when he succeeded, so that nothing worse could happen to the other characters.) Then the book chronicles the effect on Jonathan and whether Hank can save him from spiraling after David. There are some beautiful speeches, toward the end.

I would pick up this book now, if I encounter it in a bookstore. I would like to keep a copy on my bookshelf, alongside North to Freedom. It’s worth owning, recommending, and sharing with just about anyone, and I’m glad my traveling companion brought it for me.

Note: also on this trip, I started reading Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite, but gave it up halfway through after becoming fed up by the author’s lack of self-restraint, as I saw it. As I told my traveling companion: I can handle set amounts of violence, gore, murder, incest, rape, drug use, and other disturbing content like really ghastly piercings, but when pounded nonstop into one book? I have limits, despite how good the author was at writing atmospheric scenes of Americana that are some of my favorite things. (I did want to know more about what would happen to Christian and Ghost, but not enough to keep reading about Zillah knowingly or unknowingly fucking his own son.) Also, I was reminded of how much scenes of drug use (especially anything being snorted or injected) squick me.

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