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CHILDREN'S BOOKSHELF

BEHIND THE BEDROOM WALL. By Laura E. Williams (Milkweed Editions: cloth $14.95, paperback $6.95; ages 9 to 13) : NIGHT FLIGHT. By Gerald Hausman (Philomel Books: $15.95; ages 10-14) : MY LIFE AMONG THE ALIENS. By Gail Gauthier (G.P. Putnam's Sons: $14.95; ages 8 to 12)

July 21, 1996|KAREN STABINER

In Behind the Bedroom Wall, Laura Williams has fashioned a complex and involving moral tale about what seems at first to be an unlikely heroine: 13-year-old Korinna Rehme, who in 1942 Germany is a staunch member of the local Hitler youth group. She and her friends despise Jews--and keep track of suspicious people in their little diaries--with a mindless faith that is truly terrifying to consider.

But Korinna's parents harbor a secret within the walls of their home, a Jewish woman and her 5-year-old daughter, Rachel. When Korinna stumbles upon the secret, she begins her moral education--although not before she places her entire family in jeopardy. Her struggle to reconcile what she has been taught and what she has learned by example from her parents is a poignant one; it is all too clear that even a reasonable young mind can be warped by a society that has embraced madness as patriotism. The story is instructive without being didactic, and more suspenseful than a lot of what passes for adult political thrillers.

Gerald Hausman's Night Flight also addresses anti-Semitism, in America in the 1950s. It is about secrecy--about 12-year-old Max, who inherits from his father a legacy of anti-Semitism, and his best friend Jeff, who, though half-Jewish, was raised a Methodist by his mother. Max blames the immigrant Jews who live nearby for a series of troubles, and suggests that they are behind the poisoning of Jeff's beloved dog, Silver. Jeff, caught between his father's heritage and his admired best friend's hatred, has to make a choice--and even though he does the right thing, the predictable thing, Hausman manages to maintain a level of tension in the story.

We hope for and anticipate Jeff's growing awareness, but we don't see it coming. We also see, in Jeff's father, a sensitive portrait of the "cultural Jew," a nonobservant Jew who still feels tied to his cultural heritage. Max's father, in contrast, is a frightening character, a man who looks to the world like a perfectly decent fellow--save for the Nazi paraphernalia he's got stashed away. Another nicely complicated look at an adolescent's moral awakening.

Not all journeys to another time and place fare quite so well. My Life Among the Aliens is too clever by half; the worldly wise narrator, the one who understands that the beings that drop by his house are in fact aliens and not the neighbors' kids, is just so much smarter than anyone else around. Will and his younger brother Robby seem surrounded by tourists from another galaxy, and of course the grown-ups are not quite enlightened enough to get it.

This is one way to build a child's self-esteem, I suppose, to denigrate everyone around him so that by default he becomes the top dog. But as a result the characters are one-dimensional, and the one-liners, finally tiresome. They just don't ring true. When Will's younger brother returns from a trip to outer space, dejected because he was too young to help the aliens plant stories in the newspapers, Will retorts, "I should have gone. I read above grade level." A cute line--but not the sort of thing a kid says. It's the sort of thing a parent says, which is why this book is cute but not memorable.

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