Stolen by Night
by Steve Watkins
Published by Scholastic Press (November 7, 2023)
Reviewed by Drew Gallagher
Full Disclosure: author Steve Watkins is a friend of mine. If not for Watkins, I would have never had a poem published in a literary magazine titled Kumquat Meringue. That’s not the kind of thing you ever forget in a friendship.
Watkins is a Fredericksburg-based author who has written a number of young adult (YA) novels including the very popular Ghosts of War series. I believe I have read and enjoyed every one of his novels, but his newest, Stolen by Night may be the most affecting of any of his works.
It is unfortunate that I now read most YA novels through the lens of wondering if the novel would stay on library shelves in Spotsylvania County schools or be banned because a single parent and a willingly obtuse Superintendent find them offensive, but that is the county I now live in. There is no rape, bestiality, or sex in Stolen by Night. The character Jules might be gay, but the fact that I am unclear on that point means it’s likely not a disqualifier. But what would disqualify Stolen by Night is the whole reason it exists and should be read; it is a heart-rending story about the Holocaust which most assuredly did happen and should never be forgotten or whitewashed from the pages of history.
Stolen by Night is set in Paris as the Nazis begin to take over the city in 1940. Nicollete is a 14-year old who has cut her hair to pass as a boy simply to compete in a cycling race with her friend Jules. Nicolette is certainly aware of the increasing Nazi presence, but her father, a policeman, does not believe that the German occupation is necessarily a bad thing and fights often with his oldest daughter, Charlotte, about the Wehrmacht’s intentions. Slowly, Nicolette’s insular life can no longer focus solely on cycling and being a teenager, and it becomes obvious to Nicolette that Charlotte is on the right side of history, and rebelling against the Germans, in any form, is her duty even if her father disapproves.
Nicolette forms a small group of resistance fighters among friends and classmates to spread leaflets throughout the city alerting their fellow countrymen of German atrocities. In time, Jules realizes that they need to be more disruptive and make use of a small cache of weapons that Charlotte and her boyfriend have hidden in a secret room within Paris’ underground tunnel complex. At this point, a reader envisions a novel of French resistance carried out by patriotic teenagers. Vive la France!
Watkins had other ideas.
The progression from handouts to hand grenades is catastrophic for Nicolette as she is captured by the Nazis and taken to the only concentration camp on French soil, Natzweiler-Struthof. She is not Jewish. She is not gay, but she is clearly an enemy of the Reich and is treated accordingly despite the fact that she’s not old enough to drive a car. The horrors at Natzweiler-Struthof are never-ending, and any signs of humanity are snuffed out as quickly as they are observed by the prison’s guards and soldiers. This is no place for children, and yet therein lies the inherent importance of Stolen by Night. We must learn and we must remember. Especially our children.
Watkins is a marvelous storyteller with an ability to engage readers with plots that move quickly. In Stolen by Night though, there is a need to slow down and consider the story at intervals so Nicolette, even as fictional construct, and all those at Natzweiler-Struthof are never forgotten.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second-most-prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 136-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. He aspires to be the second-most-prolific book reviewer in the history of FXBG Advance.