Children's & Young Adult Books

Empathy through fiction: ‘We Are Wolves’ by Katrina Hannestad

There is a theory that people who read a lot of fiction can develop empathy through their reading. Fiction (and some non fiction too) invites us to inhabit other worlds – the characters’ times, places, and situations – and also allows us to see our own world and circumstances through different eyes. This is one way that our empathy ‘muscles’ develop and grow.

This process begins from the earliest exposure to books and, I believe, continues right through our reading life.

So it was with interest that I approached We Are Wolves, an historical fiction work by award winning Australian author Katrina Nannestad. Pitched at middle grade readers (approx 10 years and over) it is the story of the Wolf children: Liesl, Otto and baby Mia, who become separated from their mother and grandparents as the family flees from the oncoming Russian army towards the end of WWII.

The thing is, the family are German, living in East Prussia. They have the requisite photo of Hitler above their dining table. Their father has just been pressed into army service for the Reich as German defeat looms.

As a child, The Diary of Anne Frank was the only text I knew of that was written from a German-born child’s point of view. I remember my sense of dawning horror as I read about the dreadful things that befell other Jewish children and their families under the Nazis. The Wolf family are not Jewish, nor are they Nazi supporters. They are just an ordinary family trying to get by, to survive the war. They are very fearful of the Red Army troops so when Papa is reported missing in action and the Russians approach their village, they must leave.

Liesl promised her mother that she will keep her siblings together and protect them. When they find themselves alone, in a bitterly cold winter and the middle of a war zone, with no food or shelter, she and Otto must use all their wits to survive. Sometimes they must break the rules: stealing food, ransacking abandoned luggage for warm clothes or a blanket, killing birds or animals to eat. They live like wild things, like wolves; facing danger, cold and constant hunger.

The narrative is all from Liesl’s point of view, that of a child who gradually realises that war turns everything on its head:

All I know is that war does not make sense. The things that people do in a war are not the things they would do if they were at home with their families.

We Are Wolves p126

This is how we develop empathy: by living, for a while, in the world of German children whose world has collapsed around them due to a war not of their making. The narrative takes readers far enough into the experience of the Wolf children to be able to recognise their hardships and dilemmas. Darker events and actions are alluded to but not inappropriately so for younger readers.

There are lighter moments also: acts of kindness from some German and Russian soldiers and citizens, unlikely friendships with other Wolfskinder (wolf children) they encounter, and the playfulness of children, especially little Mia.

There are lovely illustrations by Martina Heiduczek, which capture the landscape and circumstances of the Wolf family as the story progresses.

The novel also touches on the importance of identity and language for well- being and sense of self, as at one stage the children must pretend to be Lithuanian so as to avoid Russian retribution.

‘German words feel right in my mouth,’ {Otto} says.
‘Yes, ‘ I agree.
“And in my heart.’
I wrap my arms around him. ‘Yes!’… But from now on,’ I whisper at last, ‘you and I must speak Lithuanian. Always…Even with each other in the middle of the night. Even in our heads and in our hearts…it is the only way we will ever be truly safe…’

We Are Wolves p290

If we can transfer our understanding of this to situations closer to home, perhaps we can better appreciate the pain experienced by Australia’s First Nations peoples, so long denied their language, culture and identity?

We Are Wolves is a beautiful, heartfelt, engrossing read that can contribute to the development of empathy in all who read it.

It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

#AussieAuthor20
#AWW2020

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.