Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Jennifer Bohnhoff: The Imitation Game and Disability in World War II Novels

Jack English/Black Bear Pictures

On New Year’s Eve my husband and I went to see The Imitation Game. This movie focuses on Alan Turing, the Cambridge Mathematician that the British intelligence agency recruited to crack the Nazi Enigma Codes, which cryptographers considered unbreakable. But for one ribald story in a bar scene, The Imitation Game might be a very good movie to show middle schoolers. It is not only an intriguing look at how mathematicians were able to save countless lives, but the movie would open a forum for how society treats those who do not conform to its ideas of normalcy.

Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a compelling performance as Turing, a mathematical genius who latere suffered because he was a homosexual. However, the movie took liberties with the character.

One of the greatest liberties was giving Turing personality traits that seemed consistent with Autism. Cumberbatch's portrayal is of an emotionally disconnected man who cannot grasp jokes or social cues. As many sources, including this one discuss, the real Turing was a sociable man who worked well with others.

I am not sure why those who created this movie felt compelled to give Turing disabilities that he did not have. Was it to make him a more sympathetic character? To make him appeal to a wider audience? To excuse his other eccentricities?

The movie made me wonder how many middle grade historical novels set in World War II concerned protagonists with disabilities. Here are a couple I’ve found. I welcome your suggesting more titles to add to this list.

The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (302p. Dial, January 2015) also takes place in World War II Britain. The protagonist is Ada, a girl who has been hidden away by an emotionally and physically abusive mother because of her clubfoot When her mother sends her little reluctantly taken in by a woman who knows nothing of caring for children, yet gives Ada a chance at learning to love and live.

T4, by Ann Clare LeZotte (112p, Houghton Mifflin, September 2008) Thirteen year old Paula Becker is deaf. It is 1939 and the Nazi Party has an edict called Tiergartenstrasse 4, shorted to T4, which directs that disabled children be removed from their homes for “evaluation” in local institutions, which really meant that they were euthanized once they were deemed to be “useless eaters” who were unfit to live. As rumors about disabled children disappearing are swirling throughout the rural German town in which she and her family live. When a priest offers to shield Paula, she takes his offer but finds his protection short lived. Paula must then use all her strength to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. This novel is told in free verse and is a quick read, even for reluctant readers.

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a 7th grad social studies teacher and the author of  several books, including Code: Elephants on the Moon, a middle grade historical novel set in Normandy during World War II. While none of the characters in her book are handicapped, several deal with ostracism and censure due to their ethnicity or religious beliefs.  You can learn more about this book on her website.

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