Joseph St George is enjoying his life as the son of British diplomats in late 1930s Berlin. His only regret is not being allowed to wear long trousers like his older friend Klaus, and not being old enough to join the Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth. But then things change suddenly – his father is arrested. Joe is shocked and worried, but he has good mates at school and enjoys bullying other kids as much as his friends do. He even joins in when they decide to harass the local Jewish baker, but when Joe sees brown-shirted soldiers beating the baker and making him and his wife clean their own blood off the cobbles, he can’t help but intervene.
Klaus comes and helps Joe to defend the baker, which is probably the only reason the brown-shirts stop, and the boys get away – Klaus is Martin Boorman’s nephew. Joe and Klaus become blood brothers. But soon after Joe and his mother must flee, and his mother seems to have extraordinary skills at evading followers. They have a nerve-wracking escape, and afterwards Joe is sent to New Zealand out of harm’s way. Joe doesn’t appreciate the peace of rural Aotearoa and can’t stand the idea of being away from all the action, so he stows away on a vessel taking food to besieged Londoners. He has an adventure on the high seas when the boat comes under fire from German U-boats.
Once in London, Joe befriends a group of kids and they help him trace his mother, who appears to be up to some strange goings-on. London during the Blitz is getting a bit too much for Joe when he manages to escape – by being kidnapped! He eventually ends up being enlisted into MI5, Joe’s fluency in colloquial German making him a valuable asset. After rigorous training, including how to kill people, he is sent on a top-secret mission to Paris. Joe finally gets to be a member of the Hitler Youth and re-unites with Klaus.
Katipo Joe is a rip roaring adventure story; we first meet Joe on the torpedo-threatened cargo vessel, and apart from when he is being billeted by a lovely young woman during his training, he is never really out of danger for the rest of the book. Joe soon finds out that there is a huge difference between the life of the spies he reads about in his adventure books and the life of a real spy. And he ends up confused and guilt-ridden rather than feeling himself a hero. And this is where Katipo Joe is so good; at pointing out the blurriness around goodies and baddies, and the sometimes-horrific things people do to further what they see as the greater good.
The book is poignant in a way, we see glimpses of the childhood and friendships Joe might have had, had not things gone insane. And you really do get a feel for the surreal as Joe wanders around London: him seeing a zebra wandering through Camden Town; seeing his mother shoot someone; seeing the immediate ghastly results of the bombing of London, and the long term results, with many of those he meets having lost people. There is a great scene in a bomb shelter when Winston Churchill’s rallying speech receives a less than enthusiastic response. For Joe “The world is a crazy place and it is slowly driving him insane.”
Through the book there is a clear demarcation those who have enlisted to fight and innocent bystanders, and what motivates Joe is that the latter are as much in the firing line as the former. And what distresses him is that the indiscriminate killing is happening on both sides. And there is a shocking act by Joe that really gets you thinking through the rights and wrongs of it all. But this is all background to a thrilling read, and Joe acquits himself extraordinarily well, he reminded me of Alex Rider. And it appears this is not Joe’s last outing – a series is in the offing. The book is suitable for older children and YA readers, and is illustrated, and has a glossary and bibliography.