"An Innocent Soldier" is a work by German author Josef Holub, translated by Michael Hoffman. It describes a teenage boy drafted into Napoleon's Grand Armee, and sent to fight in the ill-fated Russian campaign. It is a book that is written with a simple vocabulary and narrative style, suitable for young adults, although the book has very mature subject matter.
The book follows Adam, the farm boy, who at first is confused and shocked to be in the army. Never having even been to the nearest market town, his voyage across all of Europe is hard for him to understand, especially when he is dealing with a violent and bureaucratic army. He is bullied by his sergeant, an unpleasant circumstance that is righted when he meets a young and noble cavalry Lieutenant, Konrad, who takes Adam on as his servant. However, just as soon as this happens, Konrad and Adam find themselves in the middle of Russia, starving, freezing, sick and chased by raiders. There is not much military action in the book--- which is probably a realistic description of what the campaign was like, since the war was more known for its grinding lack of basic supplies than for its pitched battles. After the burning of Moscow and subsequent retreat, Adam and Konrad then retreat, still pursued by enemy raiders and dealing with starvation and illness. They do survive to the end of the campaign, and earn some type of happy ending.
"Underwrought" isn't a word I have heard used often, especially about dramatic subjects such as war, but it is a word I would use to describe this book. Many books used to teach children about the horrors of war and persecution are overwrought, trying to drive their message home strongly. The author of this book was a teenager during World War II, although how much he was directly familiar with the military is something I can't find in biographical military. It is obvious that he wants to give readers an honest, unglamorized portrait of war. He however doesn't do this by topping horror on horror: he describes the pain of war as directly as possible. While some of this might be due to the translation, I think that it is due to the author's intent.
I think this is a good book for young people who might need to understand about what wars are like, without crushing them into total cynicism or pessimism about humanity. As a character study or as a detailed work on 19th century sociology and politics, it comes up much shorter, not going into much depth on either the characters or their environment. However, allowing for its brevity and sparse style, it is a well written book.
Author: Josef Golub
Translator: Michael Hoffman
Publication Date: 2005
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic