Please take your seats people, we want to get started…. What’s that? Boxer shorts? Certainly they’re allowed…. Yes, sir, briefs, certainly. Sure, speedos are not only allowed but encouraged. Be comfortable, but do pay attention in class.
Even though Kristopher Lehrer’s last name means ‘teacher,’ as we examine the early pages of our textbook, Anne Barwell’s novel Shadowboxing, it is Kristopher who is most in need of schooling. Oh, he is a learned man, it’s true—a physicist working on an important, possibly world-altering project. Unfortunately Very Important Projects often become the clouds where a scientist’s head is most comfortable. Kristopher’s attitude, as the novel opens, is reminiscent of the fearless forward motion of a horse with blinders.
To illustrate, consider this: Kristopher’s friend—the man that could have been his first true love if Kristopher had been honest—is Jewish, and in World War II Germany the yellow Star of David he must wear means that he is in danger every time he steps out in public. And, though David is a respected physician, he can no longer practice medicine for the same reason. Yet when Kristopher meets him for coffee he has no clue why his friend is upset, or scared. Read along in your text (or look over your neighbor’s shoulder if you haven’t yet picked up your text). We look at what happens with David challenges Kristopher’s naivety, beginning on page eight.
“Have you any idea what kind of people you are working for?” David spoke quietly, as always, but there was an underlying tone of fear in his voice that Kristopher didn’t remember hearing before. David’s emotions were always controlled; it was something that Kristopher had envied. “Have you any idea of their real agenda?”
Kristopher snatched his hand away, trying to ignore how fast his heart was beating. Why had David come to him? Surely he couldn’t have presumed to use the closeness they’d once had to further whatever agenda he had? “I’m a scientist, David, trying to make the world a better place, just as you are. We are working for the advancement of science and for the good of the Fatherland.” The last sentence came out sounding like the mantra it was. Any doubts that Kristopher had were always dealt with efficiently when he repeated those words. While he knew the potential danger of the device they were working on, the chances of anyone considering utilizing the catastrophic component of it were remote.
“You always were naïve, Lehrer.” David raked a hand through his hair and replaced his glasses, adjusting them when they slipped down his nose. “Wake up and take a look at what’s going on around you before it’s too late.” An edge of desperation and fear sharpened his voice as he lowered it to almost a whisper; it sounded as though he was talking about the end of the world.
“Too late? Too late for what?” His earlier fears of being used vanished at David’s tone. Kristopher’s voice rose in pitch, all attempts of hiding his conflicting emotions lost as he tried to desperately work through his rapidly escalating confusion.
David shook his head, unwilling to say more, his eyes darting nervously around the small Kaffeehaus before his gaze settled on the man who had entered several minutes earlier. “I have to go. I’ve said too much already.”
“Wait!” David was already halfway out the door before the word was out of Kristopher’s mouth. He pushed his chair back, ready to follow his friend, then hesitated, suddenly unsure as to what had just happened.
A week later, dining at home with his sister Clara (whom he loves and depends on) and his father (with whom he has a strained relationship), he is shocked to hear that David has disappeared, and clueless as to why such a thing had happened. What’s more, he is just as dumbfounded when Clara says (on page 11)…
“Poor Kristopher.” Clara rolled her eyes. “You’re so involved in your work that you haven’t noticed what’s going on around you.” There was no teasing in her voice now. Whatever this was about, it was something very serious. “It’s because he’s Jewish, of course.”
… as he is when his father says…
“They are Jewish, Kristopher. What other reason is needed? Better that they are rounded up and sent somewhere more suited for their place in the scheme of things. We must not lose sight of the fact that the Jews are nothing more than parasites interested in taking control of the economy for themselves.”
The longer you keep your head stuck in the clouds of denial (about anything, really), the more it hurts to pull it out.
Our next unit of study follows Kristopher as he goes about his work the next day. The clouds around his head have been disturbed, but not quite dislodged. Feeling cranky and a little wooly due to a poor night’s sleep, he enters his boss’s office when the boss is out, and rather clumsily knocks a pile of papers on the floor, and reads this sentence on one of them:
Cue ominous music.
We look forward to putting these plans into reality. Such a device will ensure the continued success of the Fatherland during this war against our enemies.
Kristopher’s head falls from the clouds with a mighty thud, which hurts and can’t be ignored even by a dreamy physicist.
Gott im himmel, as my very German mother would have said. Here Kristopher had been, believing he was working on nuclear fission for peaceful purposes, and suddenly he realized he’d been living in a lollipop world.
For a number of minutes, our scientist is unable to think straight. He knows what he saw, but he’s unsure of what he might do about it, or even how to keep from getting in trouble for standing in his boss’s office with his pants down (figuratively of course, because that would be far too weird).
But a guard comes along, Obergefreiter (Sargent) Schmitz, and helps him organize his brain and move his body, thank goodness. Of course, at first, Kristoffer is afraid that Schmitz will actually contribute to his danger, but he soon realizes he was lucky the Obergefrieter came along. He leaves the office that day still waffling about what to do. Like most ordinary Germans of the day, he loves his country and has some significant blind spots about it—a phenomenon not unknown at any age of the world in just about any country, including all of those where readers of this blog might be living today. But you don’t become a leading physicist if you are slow-witted. Once Kristopher’s sight is forcibly cleared, he cannot escape the truth about the leaders of the Nazi regime and what their intentions are.
After much soul-searching, presumably some hand-wringing, and a few horrid nightmares, Kristopher Lehrer confronts his boss… and is told in no uncertain way to mind his own business. The encounter goes from bad to worse. (You can read about this in home study, chapter three of the text.) When he is discovered in the room with his dead boss by the same Obergefreiter Schmitz, he figures his number is up.
Thank heaven for pleasant surprises, large and small. When Schmitz asks Kristopher if, as smart as he is, he can come up with no better plan than to threaten the guard with broken glass, here’s what happens (at the beginning of chapter four).
“My plan? […] I don’t have a plan. […] Do you honestly think I would be standing here waving a piece of broken glass if I had a plan.”
“Good point,” Schmitz admitted.
[Text elided by blogger… er, I mean university professor Lou Sylvre. Kristopher says:]
“Have you come to hand me over to the Nazis?” Whatever happened he didn’t intend to go easily.
The corner of Schmitz’s mouth turned up in a half smile before he shook his head. “I’m here to help you, Herr Dr. Lehrer.”
“You expect me to believe you?” Kristopher wished the desk behind him would disappear into thin air, although it still wouldn’t be of much help as Schmitz was blocking the path to the only door. “I know you’ve followed me for the past week.” He noticed the slight look of surprise on Schmitz’s face with a degree of satisfaction.
“You need to trust me, Dr. Lehrer.”
You may guess that Kristopher isn’t so sure that’s the best course of action, but like people everywhere when they’re in danger and want to trust someone, he looks for a way to do so.
“Give me one good reason.”
“The Nazis will be here in, Schmitz said, consulting his watch, approximately ten minutes. Either you trust me, or you tell them what you’ve just told me. I doubt they will believe your story.”
His voice softened. “I do.”
Now, students, you may have guessed that the Obergefreiter isn’t really the Obergefreiter. His real name is Michel, and he’s not even German. And his interest in Kristopher, like Kristopher’s trust of Michel, soon weaves into a whole new feeling. After negotiating much hell and highwater together, Michel soothes a startled, overwhelmed Kristopher in his own native tongue.
“A l’aise, Kit. Je suis ici… Ssh, tout est bien.”
Yes, Michel is there and all is well for the moment. There’s a whole lot more trouble to face, more evil to evade, more heroes to meet—all kinds, German, foreign, soldiers, everyday people. But Michel does whatever he needs to do to keep Kristopher alive. And since this is Gay Romance University, it isn’t giving away secrets to let you know, that once Michel has seen to the matter of Kristopher’s continued existence, he gets the opportunity to use a little French term of endearment.
“It’s all right, mon cher. I love you. I’m not letting you go.”
That is the end of our lesson, today. If you are interested in learning more on the subject, click the cover image above for a link to the blurb and purchase links. (And while you’re there, check out the continuation of this beautiful story in book two of the Echoes of War series, Winter Duet.
I thank Anne Barwell, Kristopher, and Michel for the privilege of treating the serious story of one of the world’s most painful times with a bit of irreverence. Truthfully, the heroes in this story are a reflection of all the real life heroes on every side of that war and every other, especially the quiet ones not lauded in headlines. They all deserve our gratitude, and I take no such service or sacrifice lightly.