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Herman is the story of a small boy, Herman Fulkt, who lives with his parents in an apartment in Oslo, attends the local grade school where he is the scapegoat of teachers and the victim of bullies, haunts his neighborhood busy about the dreamy, prankish business of small boys, and lives in modest fear that one day, fishing with his father for eels, he will actually catch one. A cross between the more mischievous schoolboys of, say, Hans Scherfig's Stolen Spring and that baffled naiff Rufus of James Agee's A Death in the Family, Herman is a wonderfully conjured creation, in part because he is complexly imagined - as recalcitrant and cocky as he is timid, endearing, pathetic - and in part because Christensen's limited-omniscient narration successfully captures the world through Herman's eyes: "Father has something on his heart, and it must be heavy. He's getting smaller and smaller where he sits.... Mother nudges him with her elbow, and he starts talking as if he learned to yesterday."

Father is sad because Herman has begun to lose his hair. The reason is alopecia areata, a hair-loss condition of unknown etiology and without a cure. The progress of this disease and of Herman's coming to terms with his baldness provide the conflict that generates Christensen's plot. Herman believes for a time he is dying, his grandfather (and the only bald person Herman knows) having told him once that he is bald "because I'm going to die soon"; he refuses to go to school, where ridicule soon gives way to pity, or to wear the wig his parents can barely afford because he sees it as one more humiliating sop thrown him (and further proof his baldness is ugly); he embarks upon a life of crime (rocks through windows, intentionally failed exams, parents blackmailed into buying him things) because he realizes his malady makes him invulnerable to punishment; and he befriends the neighborhood drunk and the woman down the street suffering from St. Vitus Dance because they, too, are local oddities and the butt of jokes.

Herman, in short, is a novel with a purpose and a message: to generate sympathy for those suffering from alopecia areata. As the father of a five-year-old daughter who has lost her hair to this disease, I can say with some assurance that Christensen's story of how this disease can affect a family has the ring of truth. Those with an interest in this disease should not, however, be the author's only audience, for this is a humane, intelligent, and entertaining story, one of the loveliest adult novels of childhood I have read.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Horvath, Brooke
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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