As the story begins, Simon is a young boy who loves to sit and read books in the shadow of the great oak. His father Erik consider this to be disturbing. When Simon begs to be allowed to go to a good school, Erik forces him to promise to give up the oak forever.
Shortly after, Simon gets a new friend at school. Isak, a Jewish boy who's family recently fled from Nazi Germany. Erik is very suspicious of Isak's family. Not because they are Jewish, but because they are... bourgeois. Being a proud working class Swede, Erik strongly dislikes Simon's passion for culture in general and music in particular. Even worse, Simon displays musical talent.
As the story progress, Simon and Isak grow up to adulthood, in the shadow of the second world war. Among other things, Simon needs to come to terms with the internal conflict of how he loves his parents and how he hates his parents.
Has examples of:
- Black and White Insanity: Isak's mother Olga has a very unhealthy worldview, where she seem to regard Nazis as being Evil at an Eldritch Abomination level rather than regular guys who believe in a destructive ideology. Of course, her family is persecuted by Nazis: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you. Because of the persecution, nobody understand how far off the deep end she really is, until it is too late. Just because they're really after you doesn't mean you're not a paranoid schizophrenic... She end up trying to kill her entire family. Premeditated murder, but not out of malice: She believe it to be her only chance to save them from the Nazis.
- Broken Bird: Iza, the Auschwitz survivor.
- Closer to Earth: Erik manage to fill this role for the poor lost upper-class boy Isak, although not for his own child Simon.
- Fantasy-Forbidding Father: One of Erik's defining traits.
- Good Versus Good: Everyone in the story are trying their best to do good, and does a decent job at that. Sadly, their failures are still enough to generate a lot of sorrow and hate. (The Nazis and their local supporters are bad guys, but Erik's and Simon's struggle against them is given less then a minute of the film versions total screentime.)
- Properly Paranoid: In one way or another, most characters are this... or not. Thether Simon's parents was this or not is one of the main debates of the story. Definitely subverted in the case of Isak's mother Olga - see Black and White Insanity.
- Troubled Sympathetic Bigot: Simon's parents, especially Erik. Trying their best to be good parents, while being too narrow-minded and too full of pent-up fear & anger to avoid harming him.
- Your Cheating Heart: Ruben consistently pursues Karin even though they are both married.
- Would Hurt a Child: The German SS guards, who sexually assault a four-year-old Isak for hours.