I received Going Over from Edelweiss as a requested ARC in exchange for an honest review. Expected publication date: April 1, 2014.
Summary + Review
This is the first time I’ve read a fiction book–okay, any book–with a focus on the Berlin Wall. In fact, after reading Beth Kephart’s Going Over, I realize that my schooling about this historical barrier was pretty lacking. Luckily, the rich historic detail in Kephart’s YA novel prompted me to do some informal research about some of the scenes and events she describes.
I should add, though, that Going Over is not a book that is heavy-handed with the history lessons. This is really the story of forbidden love between two teens, Ada and Stefan. Ada from West Berlin, Stefan from East Berlin. The two have grown up separated by the wall but have come to know each other through visits between their grandmothers. The strain of limited, temporary visits, especially when Ada faces two of the most difficult experiences of her life, cause them to consider an escape plan for Stefan. But Stefan knows all too well the risks faced by those who try to go over: His grandfather was killed during his own attempt. As Stefan struggles to make what could be the biggest decision of his life, Ada creates a work of art with graffiti, a welcome mural on the very wall she hopes to see Stefan cross over.
Going Over had a slow start for me. Kephart’s writing here, while beautiful, almost has a disordered, dream-like quality to it. In one example of this, the author describes Ada’s nighttime graffiti habit, or graffing: “I work alone and in nobody’s hurry. I work from my one black boot and from things that I know about sky and vanishing, fear and wanting. I tilt the flashlight up on the bricked-in windowsill behind me and stand inside its shine, the cans of color at my feet and the rabbits on the opposite side of the wall, looking for nibbles in the death zone” (9). (Note: This quote is from an ARC and may be altered by publication.)
It was tough to get my bearings in the story with Ada’s unique voice. Really, the entire read, I had a tough time picturing the scenes and characters Kephart described; it was more like I got impressions rather than clear images. Once I acclimated to this style and the exposition gave way to action, however, I was hooked.
In addition to the main storyline of Ada and Stefan’s impossible romance are some really interesting subplots. Ada works at a daycare where many of her charges are children of the city’s Turkish “guest workers” (another history tidbit I’d known nothing about!). One of her favorite kids stops showing up to daycare, under suspicious circumstances, and Ada fears for his life. Readers also meet Ada’s friend Arabelle who is relentlessly supportive of Ada but has problems of her own.
Ultimately, this is a wonderful novel. I found myself thinking that it could actually have a wider readership amongst adults. But the right teen readers, those with patience, maturity, and some reading chops, will be so glad they read such a unique story that they won’t soon forget.
There is a lot to Going Over that will challenge readers. First, Kephart uses two perspectives: that of Ada and that of Stefan. However, to further complicate matters, Ada’s chapters are written in first person point of view while Stefan’s are told in second person. I’d never encountered voice like this before (although it did remind me of the dual stories of Shorty and Touissaint L’Ouverture in In Darkness by Nick Lake), but I came to appreciate the author’s choices. We are meant to be drawn into Ada’s world because this is Ada’s story; Stefan’s perspective is important, but ultimately he is a part of Ada’s world.
Kephart’s writing style may throw off many readers, too. Admittedly, it took me awhile to get into it. I feel like I need to quote another passage for good measure,🙂 another graffing scene: “Tonight it’s blues and purples I’m misting, white dust. Tonight my red bandana is high on my nose, my hood is pinched, and my light’s wedged in. I’ve shaken the Krylons hard, punched their noses, swapped a full cone out for a flat streamer, because I’m working the wall simple, in honor. I’m writing a burner” (48).
I think readers would also feel more comfortable in Kephart’s fictional world with some background about the Berlin Wall. As I said before, I knew embarrassingly little about that part of history going into this read, but my limited background still felt necessary to comprehending the story.
Going Over feels more like an adult novel. There is nothing glaringly inappropriate, and I don’t mean to undermine the abilities and preferences of teen readers, but I just see an appreciative reading audience being a little older. Outside of this opinion, there is a little profanity and mention, but not description, of a sexual assault.
-This is such a well-researched historical fiction novel with strong connections to the end of the Cold War, communism, the eighties, and, of course, the Berlin Wall. It is also the best kind of historical fiction–the setting is an integral part of the plot, but it is woven in naturally, not forcefully. The book or excerpts could be used in conjunction with teaching these historical topics.
-Independent reading or student-choice book clubs
-Discussions/Debates about peoples’ rights and freedoms. There are motifs about being physically and metaphorically trapped throughout Going Over.
-Mood/Tone! Kephart’s writing is practically a study in creating tone and evoking mood.
Book Talk possible passages: (Note: this will be updated upon the book’s publication. Because it’s an ARC, I cannot quote due to possible changes at publication.)
When we reach the observation post I put my arm across Arabelle’s shoulder and guide her up the steep flight of planked steps until we’re standing at the guardrail looking out over the wall’s sewer-pipe cap. Past the anti-vehicle ditch, the hedgehogs, the control strips, the trip flares, the dog run, the signal alarms, the signal fence, the barbed wire on the other side. Past the bright glare toward East Berlin, Friedrichshain, where the old buildings are fortified and the new buildings are concrete boxes, one room on top of another, every room exactly the same size, one light still on, the rest of it darkness after so much glaring brightness.
“You think they see us?” Arabelle asks, shivering a little. “The guards, I mean.”
My eyes track back toward the guards in their yellow-lit room, the steam in their windows, their radio antennae spiking on top. They’ve got portholes for firing through. They’ve got a 360-degree view. They’ve got shoot-to-kill orders if anybody flees, but right now, our graffing done, we are not their enemies. We are safe where we are against the splintery rail, safe watching that side from this side, looking for Stefan. He’s out there, somewhere, in the dark. Isn’t he?
Stefan. Please. Answer me.
“Do you think…” Arabelle asks again, but I pull my arm tighter around her and lift my right hand, marking that one solitary distant light in Friedrichshain with my spray-can finger. It twinkles on and off, yellow and blue. It looks like a star that has fallen.
“That’s him,” I say, a whisper now. (149-150)
Chronicle Books, publishers of Going Over, have made a Teacher’s Guide with discussion questions and instructional activities related to the book. Woo! Click here to get the PDF.
Plus, the publishers have also posted an excerpt from the first few pages on Scribd.
For some background about the Berlin wall, try this video from history.com.
This brief video, courtesy of National Geographic, highlights the dangers of East Germans trying to escape to West Germany.
This is not a book for everyone. That said, it will be an excellent, excellent choice for many. Beth Kephart’s Going Over is equal parts poetic prose, authentic historical background, and emotional ups and downs (feels, if you will). Those who read should not be surprised by a strong urge to do some historical research.