The Dynamite Room

  • By Jason Hewitt
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 304 pp.

Imagine how WWII might have looked to an English girl who has lost her brother to the fighting. Imagine further how she would feel if the enemy then came into her home.

In the opening chapter of The Dynamite Room, a debut novel by British playwright and actor Jason Hewitt, 11-year-old evacuee Lydia Pendell has run away from her caretakers in Wales. (Like many other British children, she had been evacuated to Wales to get away from the danger of German bombs.)

Upon her return, she finds that the entire village is empty, and she decides to wait in her house for her mother to return. In the night, someone comes. It’s a lone, injured German soldier who points a pistol at her and demands to know what she is doing there. He tells her she cannot leave the house.

Over the next few days, Lydia and the soldier develop a strange and mutually supportive relationship. We learn the soldier is a member of an elite special operations team designed to carry out sabotage and seize key objectives ahead of an invasion. Though the soldier, Heiden, has committed atrocities, he cannot bring himself to harm Lydia. He knows things about her family that a stranger should not know, and during their brief time together, he retraces the journey that has led him to her.

The war has changed him from a musician in love to a commando with haunting memories: “He had killed three children in Poland. They had been hiding in a cupboard in an empty farmhouse outside a town called Olszanica. They had burst out as he had opened the door and ran at him and, in his surprise, he had shot them. Two girls and a boy. A reflex, not a decision.”

As the story unfolds, we learn the soldier wants a fresh start. He has undertaken a quixotic, impossible quest to transform himself into someone else. That longing becomes essential to his nature. Lydia begins to sense his purpose, and her fear fades. Through precisely worded interior monologue, we see her moving toward trust:

“She could hear the man moving about downstairs — an animal with a wound where someone had already tried to hunt him down. She wondered if she could love him, if everyone else was dead and she had no choice. She would have to learn to cook, and they would tend the vegetable patch and put the garden in order.”

Throughout the novel, the author paints images through good use of understatement and subtlety. Take, for example, this excerpt, where Heiden recalls a May Day celebration in Berlin: “Fathers carrying sons or daughters on their shoulders, wives and mothers with woolen blankets, children with paper windmills and footballs, bunting swinging from the trees and lampposts. And all the flags, hundreds of flags; everybody holding one.” Note two words that do not appear: Nazi or swastika. They’re not needed because we see them anyway.

The Dynamite Room explores what can happen to a good person swept up in a bad cause, and how the maelstrom of war sears its youngest victims. The themes of the novel run closely to those of another recent work, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Both novels feature reluctant or disillusioned German soldiers whose fates become intertwined with those of young girls, and in both stories, the girls are vulnerable but not entirely helpless.

Doerr’s novel has a wider scope and a much longer timespan, focusing not only on the two main characters, but also the family members and fellow soldiers around them. Hewitt zooms in tighter, spending less time on characters’ backgrounds.

In the hands of writers less skilled than Hewitt and Doerr, these novels might have been horror stories of rape and murder. Hewitt, however, poses some profound questions: What if the wolf who comes to the door has the soul of a musician? What if he is self-aware enough to have retained his sense of right and wrong?

That makes for a much more interesting story, especially with action confined mainly to the walls of a village home. The moral dilemmas of a world war get compressed down to hyper-density in the interactions between a burned-out fighter and a frightened little girl.

Tom Young served more than 20 years with the Air National Guard, including deployments for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His novels include The Mullah’s Storm, Silent Enemy, The Renegades, The Warriors, and Sand and Fire. His newest novel, The Hunters, comes out in July.

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