Young Henrik Arndt never wanted to fight for the Nazis, but he had the unfortunate luck of becoming one of many civilians who were swept up, handed guns and ordered to fight. After nearly being killed during a battle with American forces at Aachen, Henrik finds himself their prisoner of war. He is transported across the ocean, away from his family and his homeland, to a POW camp in rural Iowa. There he works hard and becomes well-respected by those in charge, but a threat from other prisoners who were former SS officers leads Henrik to request a transfer to a different camp in Minnesota.
Elsa Sommer is seventeen and enjoying her junior year of high school. She is a hard-working farm girl who is very close to her family. One day, at the prompting of her adventurous best friend, Erica, the pair go to the POW camp nearby. Elsa is enthralled by the handsome young men she finds there who are so different from the local boys, but doesn't dare go back for fear of getting into trouble. When Elsa's father hires one of the young men to work on their farm, she falls in love with him almost instantly. Henrik earns the respect of the entire Sommer family and is invited back to work with them many more times, during which he and Elsa become acquainted and come to love one another very deeply. Once the war is over, all POWs must be repatriated to Germany without exception. Henrik and Elsa can hardly bear the thought of being separated, and what hardships might await Henrik when he returns to his war-torn land. Before parting, they vow to be together again someday, no matter how long it takes. Can the innocence of first love stand the test of time and distance?
In My Enemy, My Beloved, author Karl Vanghen has created a story of hope, determination, and the wonder of a first love to last a lifetime against the authentic historical backdrop of World War II. It appears that Mr. Vanghen has definitely done his research well, vividly rendering the struggle for survival amidst war, the day-to-day life in the German POW camps on American soil, as well as a rural Midwestern farm, and the continuing hardships and horrors that faced those returning to post-war Germany. The historical details were absolutely fascinating, and I feel like I learned a lot from the book. I haven't read many historical novels set in this era. The few I have picked up have thoroughly enthralled me, and My Enemy, My Beloved was no different. With the plot revolving around two teenagers from opposite sides of the conflict falling in love, the story was all the more appealing for a romantic like myself. Whether it was the bombed out buildings of Germany or the verdant fields of Minnesota, the author also did an excellent job of bringing the settings to life. These parts definitely showed his artistic eye as a painter, except in this case, he was painting word pictures on the canvas of my mind. I never had the least bit of trouble picking the book up again each time I had to set it down, because Mr. Vanghen drew me into the story and made me love the characters in such a way that I was emotionally invested and couldn't help wondering what would happen next.
Henrik was a wonderful young man who was wise beyond his years. He was a civilian who had basically been swept up by the Nazis, handed a gun and ordered to fight, but ended up being captured as a prisoner of war. Deep down though he was something of a conscientious objector who was never a true follower of Hitler, nor did he believe in the Nazi agenda or ever want to be a soldier in the first place. He understood and accepted the reality of what was happening in the war effort (basically that Germany was loosing) far better than many of his fellow POWs. I really respected Henrik for standing up to the SS officer who bullied him in the camps for his beliefs, even though it nearly got him killed. I held him in even higher regard for asserting his convictions in a gentle, non-violent way. When Henrik finally arrived in New Ulm and started helping on the Sommers' family farm, he proved himself to be a reliable and hard worker. He was very respectful of the entire family and grateful for the opportunities they offered him. Best of all he was a perfect gentleman toward Elsa and treated her like a precious jewel. Henrik was also very accepting of the way things had to be, and full of grit and determination to survive and find his way back to her. He was just an all-around great guy, and it was easy to see why Elsa fell for him and nearly everyone else liked him too.
Elsa was also a very mature young lady for her seventeen years who had quite a bit of spunk. I liked that she had strong morals which she stuck by, and I thought that she really showed a lot of self-respect. She was a romantic at heart who dreamed of love, marriage and family and wondered whether she'd ever find the perfect man for her. She tested the waters a bit with a couple of the local boys, but was strong enough to never allow them to take advantage of her. I thought she was very astute to see through their facade, and realize that she was only feeling infatuation and they weren't good husband material. Elsa was very respectful toward her family and a responsible girl who always did her chores when asked. She was quite accepting of the POWs right from the start. She had an innate sense of curiosity about them, but also had enough common sense to be cautious around them. Elsa was completely star-struck by Henrik from the first time she laid eyes on him. Elsa was certainly heartbroken when her father sent Henrik back to the camp, but I liked that she didn't throw a fit. She simply set herself in a determined line to do whatever was necessary to help him find his way back to her and never wavered from her objective. Elsa, just like Henrik, was a very likable character who embodied some of the good old-fashioned values that I love to read about but don't often find in real-life these days.
The book begins when World War II is slowly drawing to a close. The chapters alternate between Henrik and Elsa's point of view as we learn who they are, what they're like, how they got to their respective places in life, and what their dreams for the future are. As a couple they only spend approximately 100 pages together out of a 350+ page book. Some of the emotions they felt were more palpable such as their first meeting and their first kiss, but I thought the in-between parts were a little too passive to fully convey their obviously strong burgeoning feelings for one another. At these times, I think there was perhaps a little too much telling and not enough showing. Once they were separated, the depth of their love became apparent both in Elsa's immediate actions and their resolution to be together again someday no matter how long it took. Their love became the one thing that kept Henrik alive through some of his darkest hours, and I really enjoyed the love letters they exchanged while apart.
My Enemy, My Beloved has some wonderful secondary characters. Of particular note is Elsa's family. I loved their closeness and how she was able talk to her parents about most things. They were strict but commanded respect through their kindness and understanding, not harsh discipline methods, and they were always ready with sound advice. There were many friends for both Henrik and Elsa as well. Elsa's best friend, Erica, was a fixture throughout the story, but the more fluid nature of Henrik's life meant friends made, but then lost, as his circumstances changed. Once in a while some of the characters seemed a bit contradictory. In those moments, I think a little more introspection or expository narration might have helped to better understand their meanings and motives, but overall, I found all the characters very interesting with all of them adding to the story in some way.
Other than the couple of small issues I've mentioned so far, the only thing that prevented me from awarding a higher rating to the book was that the editing was extremely rough around the edges. The narrative could have been tightened up quite a bit through the elimination of a number of repetitive phrases and passages. I also found numerous continuity errors including character's names and ages changing, and inconsistent dating in the chapter headings near the end of the book, among other things. There were also probably hundreds of typos. I'm used to having some mistakes in every book I read, but when there are this many it does tend to be a distraction that can sometimes momentarily pull me out of the story while I figure out the real meaning. The other odd thing about the book is that it has no page numbers. This might seem like a very small thing, but for someone like myself who carefully tracks reading progress, this little detail was sorely missed. If the manuscript had been cleaned up better before publication, I would have had no qualms about giving the book keeper status, because otherwise, I found My Enemy, My Beloved to be a gem of a story that was engaging, intriguing, inspiring and an overall enjoyable read. If Karl Vanghen writes another novel, I would be very interested in checking it out.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author via the publicist, Bostick Communications, in exchange for my review.
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