‘Leipzig, 1930s Germany.
Hetty Heinrich is a perfect German child. Her father is an SS officer, her brother in the Luftwaffe, herself a member of the BDM. She believes resolutely in her country, and the man who runs it.
Until Walter changes everything. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, perfect in every way Walter. The boy who saved her life. A Jew.
Anti-semitism is growing by the day, and neighbours, friends and family members are turning on one another. As Hetty falls deeper in love with a man who is against all she has been taught, she begins to fight against her country, her family and herself. Hetty will have to risk everything to save Walter, even if it means sacrificing herself…’
Today is my stop on the blog tour for People Like Us by Louise Fein, and I have a review to share! I read this cover to cover in an evening and simply couldn’t put it down. People Like Us is a haunting look at the rise of nationalism and the use of propaganda to manipulate society, something that should not be easily dismissed as a thing of the past, especially given the recent surge in nationalism across Europe, and the media’s ever more intrusive presence in our daily lives.
As a young girl, Hetty is saved from drowning by one of her brother’s friends, an act for which she is forever grateful and leads to her trusting him and harbouring a secret affection for him as she grows. In these early years, the propaganda spread against the Jewish community has yet to truly take hold, and Walter is a friend of the family, often at her home and someone who she attends school with, making her infatuation something that does not seem to too great an issue – until Hitler’s ideology and campaign against the Jews begins to pervade society. At first, Hetty does not understand why Walter is suddenly at her house so often and why her brother seems to no longer consider him a friend, her comprehension of the changes occurring in society somewhat limited and blinded by an encouraged love for Hitler. However, a day in school, where Walter is declared to be Jewish, brings everything she thought she knew about and felt for him into question – and by extension everything that she has been taught and made to believe about her place in the world and what is happening to her country.
One of the worst things to see in the story is how Hetty is brainwashed by propaganda and indoctrinated into an increasingly disturbing belief system, not least of which is her belief that Hitler is a god-figure, the picture in her bedroom treated as an idol that she prays to and imagines as a father figure that she feels she must obey and would be disappointed in her if she fails him in any way. As the Nazi ideology progressively invades almost every facet of her life, Hetty is encouraged more and more to believe as they do, unable to escape the onslaught that claims more and more of those around her, in turn influencing her own behaviour. At first, there is much she doesn’t understand about why she is being encouraged to treat others differently, and the moment that she bows to the pressure of her peers and the weight of the beliefs she is being forced to comply with is utterly awful and finds her openly mocking and behaving in a thoroughly offensive manner to some of her Jewish neighbours. In her youth, Hetty’s belief in the propaganda spread by the Nazis is only encouraged by her father’s status within the order – how can the awful suggestions spread by the Nazis be bad when the father she loves believes them? And when her mother and brother support them too? And when her friends all want to participate in the clubs and societies created for children?
The scene I have to say that I found most horrifying and uncomfortable to read is the moment where the teacher of Hetty’s class brings a Jewish girl and boy to the front of the class and spends time detailing everything about them that he believes makes them inferior to his own ‘pure’ German race. The worst of it is knowing that this sort of thing did happen, and both children are thoroughly dehumanised and treated like animals in-front of peers who are encouraged by someone who is supposed to be a ‘responsible’ adult to demean them and consider them sub-human. They are singled out solely based on their faith and painted as an entirely different species, not considered worthy of basic human decency and kindness, and assessed like livestock. Hetty is disturbed by what the teacher chooses to do, yet she is also shocked at the fact that Walter – who is blonde and blue eyed – is one of the people that she is being taught to despise and look down on, both because he doesn’t physically meet the ‘specifications’ she is being told to look out for, and because she believes that he cannot possibly be capable of all that she is being told the Jews are and are doing.
I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I mean to avoid discussing specific points in the latter half of the narrative, but I do want to speak for a moment about the structure of the novel and the use of time. People Like Us doesn’t focus on any one particular year in the rise of the Third Reich, but lingers on formative instances of Hetty’s childhood and her life as a young woman, spending months in different years across a decade. The pacing and structure created by this use of time is incredibly effective in demonstrating the gradual stranglehold of Hitler’s ideology and its effects on the attitude, beliefs and behaviour of German society, the time spent with the characters long enough in each moment to get to know them, while simultaneously being broad enough over all to demonstrate the alterations in their behaviour and the impact that the world they are living in has on who they are.
Thank you, Head of Zeus, for the ARC of People Like Us, and for the opportunity to be part of the tour!