Excerpt from Life by Mal Peet, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Life

An Exploded Diagram

By Mal Peet

Life
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2011,
    416 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2013,
    400 pages.

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When the plane was ready, Metz led the others to the squadron headquarters, which was a low building made of concrete blocks with a curved corrugated-iron roof covered with camouflage netting. Most of the floor-space was the operations room, in which metal chairs were ranged in front of a blackboard and a map-easel. Metz instructed his men to bring four chairs through into his personal quarters, which were not much more than a dimly lit cubby-hole containing his camp bed, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers. A slightly garish colour-tinted photograph of Adolf Hitler hung on the end wall. On the chest, an almost-full bottle of Cognac and six glasses, a framed photograph of a handsome young Luftwaffe pilot with dark hair flopping almost to his eyes, and a wind-up gramophone with a horn like a huge brass daffodil.

Metz told the others to sit, then served them generous measures of brandy. He cranked the gramophone and lowered the needle onto the disc. The four men sat and listened to a piano sonata by Beethoven, the Appasionata. During its quieter passages, the gasping and collapsing of burning aircraft was clearly audible. During its turbulent finale, Metz, his eyes closed, made vaguely musical gestures with his fists. When it was over, he remained in his chair for several long moments, seemingly mesmerized by the blip and hiss of the gramophone. At last he got to his feet and deliberately dragged the needle across the surface of the disc, ruining it. The brass daffodil screeched in agony. Metz then stood to attention in front of the Führer's portrait, jabbed his right arm out and said, or rather yelled, "Heil Hitler!" The other men hastily, if less enthusiastically, followed suit.

The Oberst picked up the photograph from the chest, tucked it under one arm and led Sammer and the others briskly out to his plane. The radiance from the white-hot aircraft carcasses wobbled the air. He shook hands with each of the men in turn, wished them good luck and climbed up into the cockpit. When the engines were firing steadily, Sammer pulled the chocks away from the wheels and Metz taxied bumpily onto the runway.

Metz's last orders to Sammer had been to take his - Metz's - staff car and catch up with the rest of the evacuated squadron. Sammer disobeyed. As soon as the Junkers was airborne, the sergeant returned to the Oberst's room and stripped the sheet from the bed. He attached it to a tent-pole, and with this white flag of truce sticking out of the front passenger window, he and his colleagues drove south, not east. They surrendered to the first Canadian troops they came across, who apparently treated them as a bit of a nuisance. I was a little surprised that Sammer jovially admitted to all this in his memoir, which ends at this point. I've patched together the end of Metz's story from other sources, one of which is my imagination.

Metz flew extremely low over the North Sea in an effort to sneak under British radar. At first the weather was on his side: it was very murky. It cleared, however, just before he reached the coast of East Anglia, and he was spotted by a coastguard station just north of Great Yarmouth. (He could hardly have been missed; he nearly took the station's radio mast off.) Seven minutes from his target, he came under attack by three Spitfires.

That target was RAF Beckford, and Metz's plan was simple: he would dive his plane onto the damned place and purge it with fire. That he himself would die was no matter. To all intents and purposes, he'd been dead for almost two years already. This had to do with the photograph that he'd propped up in the co-pilot's seat, the beautiful young flier with the tumbling hair. The boy had joined the squadron in the autumn of 1942, and for six months Metz had experienced an agonizing happiness. He'd felt a need to nurture and protect that went against the grain of himself. The friction had been delicious.

Excerpted from Life by Mal Peet. Copyright © 2011 by Mal Peet. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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