One Eye Laughing, The Other Eye Weeping
by Barry Denenberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
One Eye Laughing (World War II) / 0-439-09518-2
Unlike most Dear America books, the first half of "One Eye Laughing" occurs not in America, but rather in Austria. Julie is a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish girl who watches with growing concern and apprehension as Hitler marches on her beloved city. When the Nazis take over with the barest hint of a fight, she and her family and friends are rounded up to be hurt, humiliated, and tortured for the delight of the non-Jewish population. Julie flees, alone, to America and the second half of the book begins.
The first half, the Austrian half, is troublesome in predictable ways. It seems evident that it would be almost impossible to accurately portray the atrocities of World War II in a manner that would not be disturbing for young adults. When Julie's mother is ordered to 'dress up' in her finest clothes and then dragged off by a group of soldiers, only to return hours later quiet, withdrawn, and suicidal, it is pretty clear that she was brutally gang raped. Julie's mother later commits suicide, as do many of Julie's friends. Julie tells the tale of one man who is doused with gasoline and set on fire. Julie's brother leaves the family to run off to Palestine, and her father (infuriatingly) refuses to accompany her to America, saying that his patients need him more than she does. The overwhelming tone of the story is one of isolation, pain, and hopelessness. Obviously, such a tone is historically accurate, but the result is probably not palatable for many children and young adults. Certainly, reactions will depend on the child in question.
Part two details Julie's new life in America and is frankly rather boring. Julie settles in with her new family with very little problems and immediately begins to live a sort of charmed life. Because she does not want to be mocked for her accent in school, she is given private tutors. She quickly becomes a celebrated success when she unexpectedly subs for "Wendy" in her aunt's professional rendition of "Peter Pan" and the local newspapers crow loudly about the lovely new actress. We receive no further information about Julie's missing brother (is he safe? did he make it to Palestine?) or her father (was he murdered? sent to the camps?) until the brief and depressing epilogue. Julie does not follow the war in the papers because it upsets her. As such, the last half of the novel is almost completely useless as a glimpse into history because Julie encounters neither the War, nor the culture around her, by virtue of being completely sheltered.
The story of her rise to fame is whimsical and light, probably meant to offset the opening horrors of the first half, but the overall combination is rather unpleasant. The result seems to be an introduction of horrors watered down by an unfinished story. I highly recommend that parents read "One Eye Laughing" before providing it to a child, and be prepared to answer the tough questions that World War II always raises.
~ Ana Mardoll
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