Behind The Stories

"The Tin Drum" Exposed NPR's Lynn Neary to a Different Kind of Passion

Our riff on NPR Books' summer series hearing from NPR staff and journalists about the eye-opening books of their youth continues today with Arts Correspondent Lynn Neary. Moving from the family bookshelf to her older sister's college reads, Lynn remembers how the powerful themes in Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum first introduced her to the concepts of true evil and adult passion:

"When I was growing up there was no such thing as "Young Adult" literature. There were just books. Of course, some were clearly intended to be read by kids. And looking back, I can't remember when I started crossing the line from Louisa May Alcott to books that were clearly written with adults in mind. I can remember plundering the books on the family bookshelf everyone now and then. I loved a collection called Tales of Horror and the Supernatural that thrilled and terrified me with stories like The Most Dangerous Game, about a very wealthy man who lured people to his private island with the promise of some great hunting. Unfortunately, his "guests" found out too late that they were the "game" and he was the hunter. It was scary and fascinating but I wouldn't really call it risky. I'm not sure my parents had any "risky" books.

"But my sister did. Five years old than I, she was already in college when I was just starting high school. I pretty much wanted to do everything my older sister did. So it was only natural that I would be extremely curious about the books she was reading in college. They were cool and sophisticated and way above my head. The one I remember best, that left a lasting impression on me and I still often cite as one of my all time favorite books (even though I've forgotten a lot of it), was The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.

"It's the story of Oskar who gets a new tin drum for his third birthday and decides then and there that he will not grow up; he will remain just as he is forever. And so, from the perspective of an eternal child, he witnesses an adult world that is chaotic and cruel. He sees the rise of Nazism in his hometown. As a three year old with a drum, he can wander unnoticed through Nazi rallies. He sees synagogues set on fire and gets caught up in fierce fighting between Germans and Poles.

"Closer to home, he is a silent witness to the illicit love between his mother and her cousin, a man he thinks of as his "presumptive father," instead of the father who raised him. There was one scene where Oskar sits under a table and sees his uncle fondling his mother surreptitiously. I honestly don't think I completely understood what was going on between Oskar's mother and her cousin. It only dawned on me, gradually, that they were having sex. But this was not a young girl's fantasy of sex. It was a doomed affair; more frightening than enticing. And the way Oskar's mother finally chooses to end the affair and her life involves a grotesque image of eels that has seared my imagination forever.

"The Tin Drum wasn't the first book about Nazism I had ever read. We all grew up on Anne Frank back then. But through Oskar, Gunter Grass took me right into the middle of the war and right into the heart of evil. Through Oskar he exposed me to a kind of passion I had never known existed before. All of it shocked me, as it should have. I came away a little sadder and a little wiser."

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