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A novel about a Hitler Youth, yes, Caging Skies is, but it’s more a record of love and its, at times, insane or even cruel manifestations. Johannes, a teenager living in Vienna during the rise of the Third Reich, finds that his parents, unwilling to accept his newly enlightened ideas about Aryan superiority, are committing a terrible crime: sheltering a young Jewish woman, Elsa, in their house.
Despite his initial instinct to kill her, Johannes instead becomes obsessed with her in a way that is certainly human, but mostly adolescent. Johannes loses his family one by one, and when the war is finally over, and the Reich has lost, he withholds the information from Elsa. She has no choice but to believe that she is perhaps the last Jew in the Third Reich, and all thanks to her protector Johannes.
Instead of telling the truth, Johannes chooses to keep her for himself, and continues to justify it as she grows to reciprocate his love. Caging Skies is full of Johannes’ short experiences in the streets of Vienna that he simply refuses to learn from, whether out of his love-induced blindness or age-adjacent naivete. From suffering due to a dishonest deal buying potatoes, to Elsa’s distress at being bought a pet bird (she says it is “a sin to cage a creature that God meant to fly”), Johannes continually ignores the signs that he is in the wrong by keeping a woman under false pretenses.
However, by the time Johannes has grown up far enough into the future to chronicle his story with Elsa (in this book), he is more reflective and can perhaps be redeemed: “The great danger of lying is not that lies are untruths, and thus unreal, but that they become real in other people’s minds.”
The novel does a fantastic job of exploring the mundane atrocities of war, the struggling for food and water, the cultural invasions. But most of all, it turns into the kind of love story that reveals the mundaneness of love itself, as Johannes and Elsa seem to fall out of love and settle into rather an agreeable companionship, which heartbreakingly seems like an improvement.
Caging Skies is Christine Leunens’ second novel. Originally published in 2004, it is now being adapted into film by actor and director Taika Waititi under the title Jojo Rabbit. Released last Friday, the film takes Johannes’s Hitler deification to a different level, with Waititi depicting the Fuhrer as an imaginary friend. Come back next issue to see how it is.
From last issue, The Goldfinch movie has failed to please the few who watched it. Widely claimed to be incoherent and a bit too focused on star Ansel Elgort (despite operating in two timelines while Elgort is only a part of one), The Goldfinch seems to not have done the book justice. We will see if Jojo Rabbit’s unique take on Caging Skies pays off in a way that an attempt to stay true to The Goldfinch couldn’t.