The topic of Jennifer Nielsen’s latest middle-grade novel really caught my attention: the Berlin Wall. Why aren’t there more historical novels written about that part of history? My instincts were right – A Night Divided is a riveting and fascinating story of a young girl’s experiences trapped in East Berlin.
Twelve year-old Gerta is surprised to wake up one morning in Berlin in 1961 to the noise of construction close to her family’s apartment. She looks outside to see that a tall fence has gone up through the middle of her city overnight, dividing East Berlin, controlled by the Soviets, and West Berlin. Worst of all, her father and brother went to West Berlin yesterday to look for work and are now trapped on that side. As Gerta, her mother, and her brother, Fritz, worry about what will happen to their split family, they see more changes around them.
The temporary fence soon becomes a wall, constantly monitored by armed guards. Gerta misses her father and brother, but they aren’t allowed to come back; the Soviet forces restrict any movement back and forth between East and West Berlin. Walking to school, Gerta tries to watch the fence to see if she can spot her family members on the other side, but a guard with a gun threatens her just for looking. Despite her fear, Gerta can’t help but glance over that way, and one day, her persistence is rewarded, and she spots her father and brother on a viewing platform on the other side of the wall!
With hints pantomimed from her father, Gerta comes up with a plan to escape to the West by tunneling under the wall. It’s hard work, though, and must be done entirely in secret. If she were caught, she and her whole family would be killed. Even worse, she can’t ask for help and doesn’t know whom she can trust. Her neighbors and even her best friend might spot suspicious behavior and turn her in to protect their own families.
Nielsen paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live behind the Wall, in constant fear and with no freedom or rights. I knew very little about this aspect of post-war history, other than remembering when the Wall came down in 1989. I didn’t even realize it was so long after the war – 1961 – that the wall was erected. I was so intrigued by this novel that I looked up historical information on the real Berlin Wall (see the photos included here). Nielsen did her homework – several of the incidents and escape attempts she describes in the novel really happened, many families were split up, and some people did manage to escape by digging tunnels.
The historical aspects of this novel were enlightening, but it is also an action-packed, suspenseful story, as Gerta races against time to try to help her family escape and reconnect, with the constant fear that she will be caught. She also struggles internally, with going against her mother’s wishes, with losing her best friend, and with wondering whom she can trust. I listened to the book on audio, which was read wonderfully by Kate Simses, and I was engrossed in the story from the very beginning. Believe it or not, this was the first novel I’ve read from this popular author. I hope she will continue to write historical fiction.