Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse – Dana VanderLugt

Enemies in the Orchard by Dana VanderLugt
Published by Zonderkidz on September 12, 2023
Genres: Children's
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Set against the backdrop of WWII, this achingly beautiful middle grade novel in verse based on American history presents the dual perspectives of Claire, a Midwestern girl who longs for college even as she worries for her soldier brother, and Karl, a German POW who’s processing the war as he works on Claire’s family farm. This poignant and moving story of an unlikely connection will stay with readers long after the final page.

It’s October 1944, and while Claire’s older brother, Danny, is off fighting in World War II, her dad hires a group of German POWs to help with the apple harvest on their farm. Claire wants nothing to do with the enemies in the orchard, until she begins to notice soft-spoken, hardworking Karl. Could she really have something in common with a German soldier?

Karl, meanwhile, grapples with his role in the war as he realizes how many lies Hitler’s regime has spread. But his encounters with Claire—the serious girl with gentle eyes—give him hope that he can change and become the person he wants to be.

Inspired by the little-known history of POW labor camps in the United States, this lyrical verse novel is told in alternating first-person poems by two young people on opposite sides of the war. Against a vivid backdrop of home front tensions and daily life, intimate entries reveal Claire’s and Karl's hopes and struggles, and their growing attraction to each other even as the war rages on. What are their chances of connection, of redemption, of peace?

Enemies in the Orchard is:
A gorgeously written novel in verse for 9–12-year-olds
Historical fiction based on true events during WWII
A heartfelt story that explores connection, trauma, and hope

I love reading children’s novels set during World War II, and this was no exception. Dana VanderLugt did a wonderful job creating a sense of time and place in this story, and she explores deep, powerful themes related to the cost of war, the price of prejudice and division, and the importance of truth, repentance, and forgiveness. This free verse novel goes back and forth between the perspectives of two teenagers, with Claire feeling suspicious about the German POWs helping bring in her family’s apple harvest, and the German soldier Karl struggling with disorientation and guilt as he realizes how profoundly deceived he has been and recognizes his complicity with the Nazis. Although this is a fictional story, its inspiration comes from little-known historical events, and the author’s note at the end shares even more information about this.

Enemies in the Orchard is well-written and gripping. I usually don’t care for free verse novels, since they tend to be choppy and vague, but this book is genuinely poetic. From the very beginning, I appreciated the author’s style and creativity, and the free verse medium works very well with this particular story. This format preserves the subtlety and lighter touch necessary to make a story like this work, since it restrains how much the author can say. This opens the door for the reader’s reflection and personal processing, without the author preaching at her audience or leading them directly to the conclusions she wants them to reach.

This multi-layered story is deep and thought-provoking, and it is incredibly well-written. However, I have two concerns that keep me from giving this a higher rating. Firstly, the hint of romance at the end is unnecessary and inappropriate, due to the age gap between the protagonists. Although I don’t think the author ever states their ages outright, Claire has recently started eighth grade, while Karl is eighteen or nineteen. The majority of the book shows them overcoming their differences, forging an uneasy alliance and building a friendship, and I wish that the author had left it there.

There was no need to imply mutual romantic interest at the end. It is unnecessary to the plot, overshadows Karl’s positive character development with an unnecessary red flag, and can potentially harm the target audience of girls in late elementary school and middle school. Why suggest to this audience that it’s romantic for an nineteen-year-old to be interested in an eighth grader? Although the story itself is innocent, the concept is concerning, and I would encourage parents to be aware and use this as a teaching moment.

The other reason why I am not rating this higher is because the ending is so abrupt and tragic. I don’t want to spoil it any further than that, but I was totally blindsided by the direction this took, and even though the author explains that she based this on true history, I’m not convinced that it was the right choice for this story. Life is full of tragic, unexpected twists and turns that no one sees coming, but that doesn’t mean that a children’s novel must end on such an abrupt, alarming note, without any closure. If this were my story, I would have written a different ending and only mentioned the historical tragedy in the author’s note. As things stand, I still enjoyed this from my adult vantage point, but I would have hated that ending when I was in middle school. I would have been so furious.

Enemies in the Orchard is a powerful, beautifully written novel that is full of strong character development, vivid sensory details, and deep themes about identity, truth, and the cost of war. I really enjoyed this, and I would recommend this to teenagers and adults who are prepared to deal with a sad twist ending. Regarding younger children, I would encourage parents to consider whether or not the wartime traumas and tragic ending would be too much for their kid, and to use the protagonists’ multi-year age gap as a discussion point. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and was very impressed with it, but it will require careful navigation for some families.