This is the first novel that changed my life, that shaped a part of who I am. I was nine years old, wandering through my school’s library, looking for longer books with appealing covers because I was still at an age where I liked illustrations–it would be another couple of years before I started to dislike them because I found my imaginings of the characters to be so much more interesting. (This book is also the root of my dislike of the idiom that you can’t judge a book by its cover–I’ve discovered a number of excellent novels because I
was attracted by their covers. I do realize that’s irrelevant to the meaning of the saying, but it still irritates me.)
I knew about World War II–my father was a child in London during the Blitz, and my mother remembers the German POWs who worked for her father and other neighbours when she was very small. Our bookshelves at home are still lined with biographies of Churchill and dozens of histories of the military aspect of the conflict. I was always more interested in the social side of history, though, and beyond watching Hope and Glory every time it came on TV, I didn’t know much about that side of things at that point. I picked the book up because I was intrigued by the illustration, and I loved the title; there was no synopsis on the back of the book, and most of the excerpt on the inside of the front cover is a discussion between two characters about the mythological heroes of Poland. I may have thought it was in part a fantasy story–I’d already discovered fantasy at that age, and was enchanted by all things mythology-related.
Fantasy is is decidedly not, although it is nightmarish in many parts. It follows Trina, seven years old in 1939, as her world is torn up by the Nazi occupation of Poland. She watches what her friends and loved ones endure at the hands of the invading soldiers, and soon decides to fight back in whatever way she can. The novel chronicles Trina’s life during the war, and the ways that she and several like-minded children mounted what resistance they could to the occupation.
It is still my favourite novel about WWII, and my favourite YA novel. I don’t remember how many times I read in the three years between my discovering it and graduating the school whose library owned the only copy I could find. I looked for it in every bookshop I went into, every garage sale. Everyone always thought I was talking about Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. A few years later I found another copy in the library of the elementary school attached to my high school and seriously considered how to steal it, leaving money in its place, but I never had the chance–it was not a room I routinely had access to, and I could hardly have come and gone unnoticed, as the librarians knew all the children they worked with. Then came the age of online book stores, just after I’d finished university, and Margaret found a pristine first edition for me one Christmas–one of the many reasons she’s an amazing friend. I shrieked like my nine-year-old self when I unwrapped it, much to my parents’ consternation. I spent that Christmas day re-reading the book, and have done so again many times since. It isn’t one of the books I carry around with me from country to country, because I’ve done my best to keep it from damage, but it is always on my favourites shelf.
It grieves me every time I see a list of books for children and teens about the Holocaust and this is not on it. At times I wonder if this is because too many parents and teachers found it too grim–it is grim subject matter, and unsparing in its depictions of the violence committed by the Nazi army and by those who resisted them–but most of the time I’m inclined to think it’s just because it wasn’t advertised successfully. Since the recent success of Elizabeth Wein’s excellent Codename: Verity and Rose Under Fire, as well as other YA novels such as A Northern Light, I keep hoping that it will be republished and get more attention. I’ve seen it mentioned in a few scholarly works on the representation of war in children’s fiction, but it doesn’t have the readership it deserves. I continue to hope it will be rediscovered, and that this will change.