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The House of One Thousand Eyes is the story of teenage Lenah Altmann living in East Berlin in the 1980s before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her parents were killed in a factory explosion. After a stay in a psychiatric hospital to recover from the trauma she resides with her Aunt who is fully vested in the political propaganda fed to her on the TV and newspapers from the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Lenah works overnight cleaning the office buildings of the State Security Service (Stasi). Her only solace is her Uncle Erich, a writer with political dissent, and an enemy of the state. When he goes missing, he is erased. True erasure and cancel culture under a tyrannical regime. He is not just shunned publicly and banned from publishing. His existence is fully erased. A new tenant is at his apartment and acts as if he’s always lived there. When Lenah even mentions Erich’s name, she is told he never existed, that she is crazy. Even by his own sister whom she resides with. His books are no longer to be found in stores or libraries and clerks act as if he, and his books, never existed.
Lenah risks her life by using her access to the Stasi comrades offices she cleans overnight to search for information. Eventually, she plans to escape East Berlin with the help of a West Berlin publisher of her uncles books and a local theater actor who she is unsure she can trust. This all comes with dire consequences as she is caught, sexually assaulted, and threatened with re-institutionalization by one of the commanders of the Stasi whose office she cleans when he finds her going through his files.
Our current rhetoric in American news and politics casually throw the word tyranny around. It’s misused. This book is a great tool to teach what living under tyranny is like. The GDR was an oppressive government that truly terrorized those that lived behind that iron curtain. Barker has created a novel of well researched authenticity that captivates readers and immerses them in what life was like. Not just the food lines and lack of opportunities, but the true police state oppression that was uniquely Berlin. It gives students as readers the lens to see just how the division of Germany, and a city within the East side of the iron curtain, were carefully monitored. A place where strict enforced policing kept citizens silent, or worse, turning on each other. It also shows the power of state run media propaganda through Lenah’s aunt who fully is in support of the Stassi and German (and Soviet) socialist republic at the expense of her own freedom.
In addition to this richly historical fiction setting that is so authentic, the novel is also a great tool to examine the craft of writing. The setting stands out from the beginning. Barker clearly has done a great deal of research to include all those little details from what food, theater, work, and daily life was like in that time for those in East Berlin and the GDR. The Stassi headquarters in particular, with an aura of paranoia for the overnight cleaners, is rich with setting details. More interestingly for this reader is the narration. Lenah begins the novel by disclosing her stay at a psychiatric hospital after her parents’ death. Sadly, she ends up back at that unit at the end. With that, though, comes the clever device of the unreliable narrator. Can readers truly believe that her uncle existed or was he a figment of her imagination? Did she really work at the Stassi and plan to escape to the west or was she institutionalized the entire time? While the specific answers don’t necessarily matter to these questions because as a reader we are fully vested her story. But when read alongside some of the most famous unreliable narrator stories like, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, it poses some interesting ways of interpretation. It also poses some rich discussions about why unreliable female narrators are often placed in psychiatric hospital settings and why this is so? The lens to view this novel from, a feminist one, is truly a great place to start.
In my search for historical fiction of the lesser-known events that kids may not know about, I am so glad to have spent time in Michelle Barker’s The House of One Thousand Eyes. It brought forth a number of classroom uses that connected it to a plethora of possible conversations and activities.
Roy Edward Jackson has published prose, essays, and scholarly articles in a variety of literary, academic, and popular publications. He holds degrees in English, Education, and Library Information Science from Western Michigan University, Aquinas College, University of Georgia, and Youngstown State University. Roy has been an educator for over 20 years in elementary and higher education roles.