The year is 1956. A decade ago, Hitler and the Nazis won World War Two, and Germany is now gearing up for the annual Axis Tour: a motorbike race in which the Axis powers — the Third Reich and Imperial Japan — compete to commemorate their victory over Britain and Russia. The race takes riders across seas and continents, from its kick-start in Germany all the way to the finishing line in Japan. Eighteen-year-old Yael, holocaust survivor and death camp escapee, has one goal: to win the race and kill Hitler.
Yael’s story begins on a train. Rewind ten years from the race’s start, and we find an eight-year-old Yael and her mother stuffed into a train like cattle, along with hundreds of other souls destined for a death camp. But before she enters, a scientist picks Yael from the crowd of Jews to become a guinea pig for his experiments: he wants to test a new formula that will alter the appearance of any person to look Aryan. Out of these twisted tests, Yael develops a power: she is able to skin-shift and can transform herself into any appearance she chooses. By altering her face, she escapes the death camp and joins the resistance against the Axis Powers.
Back to 1956, and Yael has assumed the identity of the only female competitor in the Axis race: Adel Wolfe, the Führer’s sweetheart and general darling of the German population. Now Yael must convince the world she really is Adel, whilst competing in the deadly motorbike race across the world that other competitors will literally kill for to win.
So the premise isn’t mind-blowingly original, but Ryan Graudin’s Wolf By Wolf (2015) is well executed. She manages to maintain the pace whilst switching between the present race and Yael’s tortured past, which is by no means an easy feat. The prose is also beautifully written, which is always refreshing in YA, a genre that has a tendency to sacrifice writing for breakneck speed.
Graudin populates her story with a broad cast; there are eighteen competitors in the race, and it would be a difficult task to do justice to the characterisation of each. As a result, some of Yael’s opponents (a host of Japanese and German bikers) feel a little flat. Yael herself is elegantly and convincing characterised, and readers will no doubt find themselves rooting for this complex and determined heroine.
As for the rest of the cast, there’s an interesting conflict for Yael in the form of Adel’s brother Felix joining the race, as well as the fact that she is competing against a former victor that Adel may or may not have had a relationship with — it’s all up to Yael to try and figure out what’s happened without letting slip that she’s not really Adel. Trying to piece together the past of the person she’s supposed to be almost proves more difficult than the race itself.
Wolf By Wolf tells the very human story of a girl who’s been wronged by history, and sets it against a fantastical backdrop to a plot that will keep you riveted from start to finish. Even if you’re not a motorhead, the bike race will have you hooked, and though the book has been shelved as YA, Graudin’s delicate exploration of human suffering will chime with old and young readers alike. Highly recommended.