A few months ago I decided to revisit some of the young adult fiction I'd read as a child, and randomly picked Dreamland Lake by Richard Peck as my first choice.
I'd read it when I was about nine years old and really didn't remember much except that the book had a spoiled child who did weird stuff. I wasn't too far into it when my random decision seemed like a subconscious choice, because holy shit, it had has some relevant stuff to say about Nazis.
Lately I've seen people looking for ways to educate themselves about the increase in fascism and white supremacist violence, and since I believe young adult fiction has a lot it can teach everyone, not just children, this week we're going to discuss some of the lessons found in the book.
For those who haven't read Dreamland Lake, it was published in 1973 and tells the story of two thirteen-year-old boys, Flip and Brian, who are the best of friends. They do everything together. They explore the woods, take swim lessons, have a paper route—and find human remains. They are the only best friends each other needs, but of course some pasty loser has to come along and try to insert himself into their friendship. That pasty loser is named Elvan Helligrew.
Elvan is lazy, bad at everything, and doesn't know how to be anything other than a pathetic punching bag. His single mother dotes on him, dressing him in corduroys and button-up shirts, and they live a comfortable, suburban life. This is an effectively written character because there is absolutely nothing redeeming about Elvan, and at no point do you find yourself sympathizing with him, which you soon find out is a good thing.
One day, Flip and Brian discover that Elvan has been stalking them while they play outside, so they decide to befriend him in order to find out why he's been following them around like a creep. Elvan invites them over to his tidy, brand-new house, where his mother is way too excited to see them. She feeds them piles of cakes and other sweets until Elvan yells at her like a worthless little shit. Then he takes Flip and Brian into the basement to show them his playroom, which is filled to the brim with Nazi memorabilia of all kinds.
This part of the book is a really good teaching moment because Flip and Brian get weirded out and leave. "GTFO" is always solid advice any time someone shows you their secret Nazi playroom or their closet full of #MAGA gear.
After the playdate, Flip and Brian distance themselves from Elvan because that's what you're supposed to do when some kid who wants to be your friend gets all excited showing you a knife with a swastika on it. Honestly they should have told every trusted adult they know, all their friends and written a letter to the local paper, but I think in the end they handled it about as well as they could have without consulting their parents.
There's a lot of good lessons in the book, but the most insightful moment comes when Brian tells Flip why he thinks Elvan is high on the Nazi bullshit:
I’ve been thinking that maybe he admires the Nazis because he thinks they were supermen, which is what they thought themselves.” “And?” “And he’s not a superman. He’s an unsuperman. He’s a zero. It gives him something big and impressive to be a part of.
Whoa. It was like Richard Peck went back in time and whispered into his own ear while he sat at his typewriter "Hey Rich old pal, write some evergreen stuff on why assholes become Nazis because this shit isn't going to go away and will make a huge comeback in about forty years."
One of the only times the story strays into questionable territory is when Brian has a moment where he thinks that getting excited about finding a dead body in the woods makes him just as bad as Elvan, who signs his name with a swastika and may or may not have stabbed a man.
It comes dangerously close to the wishy-washy liberal line of thinking that dictates if you hate Nazis enough, you suddenly one day turn into one, which is a thing that usually doesn't happen. Don't worry about that too much though, because without giving too much away, I'll just reassure you that things don't end well for Elvan, while Flip and Brian are more or less okay. The lesson is clear that they are not the same.