Werner Pfennig grows up in a town called Zollverein, near the city of Essen, Germany, with his younger sister, Jutta. Werner and his sister are raised in an orphanage, full of sick children and overworked adults. As a boy, he’s sickly but highly inquisitive—he loves to ask Frau Elena, his nurse and the head of the orphanage, impossible questions about the world. Werner and Jutta enjoy drawing and telling each other stories. Jutta likes to draw pictures of Paris—a city she’s heard lots about.
The disparity between Werner’s life and Marie-Laure’s couldn’t be clearer. And yet Doerr makes sure that we see some small links, such as Jutta’s drawings of Paris and Werner’s fondness for telling fanciful stories. Werner and Marie-Laure seem like equally inquisitive, intelligent children—unfortunately, they will soon be caught on opposite sides of a world war.
As Werner grows up, he begins walking by the nearby mines. One day, he takes Jutta to the mines, points down into the darkness, and says, “That’s where Father died.”
One immediate similarity between Werner and Marie-Laure is that they’ve both lost someone very important to them—Marie-Laure seems to have no mother, and Werner has lost a father (and seemingly a mother as well, since he is in an orphanage—but her fate is unexplained).