Vivid novel makes history personal
A real page-turner, You Are the Boy centres around Canadian Mennonite character Ben Ruhe. When Ben’s mother becomes the subject of medical research, a testing procedure reveals Ben’s typical Mennonite family history isn’t so ordinary after all: his maternal grandmother was Jewish, adopted secretly into a Mennonite family in the 1870s. The book doesn’t follow a chronological story; rather, it opens with Ben’s birth in 1950, then jumps back and forth from the late 19th century to the early 2000s. The novel takes place in rural Eastern European villages, a German concentration camp, an airplane, a Canadian pastor’s office, Jerusalem, and many places in between.
Danny Unrau is a skilled storyteller, weaving together what turns out to be a captivating family history spanning 120 years and several countries. Though the chapters jump between different characters and eras, Unrau’s narrative style keeps you turning the pages, eager to connect the threads. It’s clear the author is a skilled storyteller, and he quickly draws you into his web.
Although a fictional novel, the characters and events feel real; there is certainly a strong historical element to the book, and overall the novel comes across as a fictionalization of parts of Unrau’s own life, or at least people he knows. The book is able to draw in historical elements without becoming dull or encyclopedic, and effectively leaves parts of the narrative to be filled in by the reader’s own imagination. Most characters and places feel familiar; readers should recognize themselves or people they know amongst the various people in the novel. Unrau is a great storyteller, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the novel feel convincing and vivid, without being over-described.
Well-written overall, the novel had one main weakness: the central character, Ben Ruhe. I had difficulty sympathizing with Ben who, despite being surrounded by people, keeps himself insular and solitary. In one chapter, for example, Ben mentions he’s married, but this wife never appears in the novel, even when he faces deep personal crises in which he should naturally rely on his spouse. In addition, his youthful romantic affair lacks any real connection, he shies away from interacting with others, his faith often feels dispassionate and academic, and he carries out the duties of his pastoral office in a vacuum. I also found that the sections where Ben engages in debate with Orthodox Jews feels like the voice of Unrau himself trying to make some broad theological points, which was disruptive to the narrative style of the rest of the novel.
Overall, You Are the Boy is a complex, engaging story which should captivate readers and leave them thinking. For Mennonite Brethren readers, it presents often-covered subject matter in a refreshing way, taking a topic normally covered by memoirs and histories and turning it into a tale to be told.
Lauren Klassen is a member at Scott Street MB Church, St. Catharines, Ont. A human resource professional, she loves literature — especially Jane Austen’s writing