Book Review: Number the Stars, Lois Lowry (1989)

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

“the gift of a world of human decency”

five out of five stars

It’s September 1943, three years since German forces seized control of Denmark. Nazi soldiers patrol the streets and control the government, hospitals, schools, newspapers, and rail system; possessing an illegal newspaper like The Free Danes might very well get you killed. Copenhagen is under an 8PM curfew, and supplies are strictly rationed. And now, three years later, the Nazis are just beginning to “relocate” Jewish citizens, the way they have in so many other occupied territories.

But the Danish government received warning, which it passed on to Jewish religious leaders. Thanks to one German high official – not to mention countless courageous Danes – most of Denmark’s 7,000 Jewish citizens were smuggled to safety in Sweden. In just a matter of weeks. Right under the occupiers’ noses.

Against this backdrop, Lois Lowry weaves a story of courage and compassion that’s only partially a work of fiction. When word comes that they’re in danger, the Rosen family sends their only daughter, ten-year-old Ellen, to stay with family friends the Johansens: Ellen’s best friend Annemarie, her little sister Kirsti, and their parents. When Nazi soldiers come knocking, Ellen poses as the Johansens’ dead daughter Lise. Afraid of arousing the soldiers’ suspicions, the women travel to stay with Inge’s brother, Henrik, who lives by the sea. Before the war is over, young Annemarie will find her resolve tested. Will she undertake a dangerous mission in order to save her friend Ellen – or will she succumb to her fear of the soldiers?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Escape from Berlin, Irene N. Watts (2013)

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

“For those who do not look away”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

In the nine months before the outbreak of World War II, and thanks to the efforts of Jewish and Quaker delegates from Germany and Austria, some 10,000 children were ferried to safety in Great Britain. Most of the children rescued through Kindertransport were Jewish, living in Nazi Germany and neighboring Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and thus in danger of persecution; others were orphans in need of more permanent care during wartime. The children were transported to England, where they were placed in foster homes, hostels, schools, and farms. (Among those rescued? None other than noted American sex therapist – and former Israeli scout and sniper – Dr. Ruth Westheimer. The Wiki entry on Kindertransport makes for interesting reading, and also provides a list of memoirs and historical novels written about this oft-forgot piece of WWII history.)

Author and playwright Irene N. Watts arrived in England via Kindertransport on December 10, 1938. She was just seven years old (the same age as protagonist Sophie) and traveled alone. While the events in Escape from Berlin are not autobiographical, the story is no doubt heavily influenced by the experiences of Watts and children like her. December 1, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of the first Kindertransport; Good-Bye Marianne, Remember Me, and Finding Sophie are published together here for the first time in honor of the occasion.

Marianne Kohn has spent all of her eleven years in living Berlin with her mother and father. The growing air of anti-Semitism, while sometimes puzzling, is part of Marianne’s daily landscape: she’s used to signs barring admittance to “Jews and dogs,” and public park benches (or entire parks) which are reserved for Aryans only. In the days leading up to World War II, however, life grows increasingly perilous for her family. Marianne is expelled from school when the government passes a new law preventing Jews from attending public schools; similarly, the Nazis prohibit Jews from owning businesses, thus forcing her father to sell his beloved book shop. Even this doesn’t save him from scrutiny, however; the new owner finds some banned books in stock and promptly reports him to the authorities. (“Berlin was full of eyes,” Marianne recalls.) Though he’s ultimately released by the Gestapo, Vati goes into hiding. Faced with dwindling options, Mrs. Kohn decides to do the unthinkable: send Marianne away to England, where she’ll be safe from persecution. Thanks to her volunteer work at an orphanage, Mutti is able to secure a place for Marianne aboard the very first Kindertransport run. The adults wait with bated breath: will the Nazis honor their agreement and allow the train to leave undisturbed? What will become of their children? Is this goodbye their last?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs (2011)

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Freaks, Geeks, and Vintage Photography

three out of five stars

As a child, Jacob Portman delighted in his grandfather’s fantastical – yet supposedly autobiographical – stories. Abraham claimed to have lived a rather extraordinary life that began during World War II, when his parents sent him to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. A magical orphanage-slash-boarding school located on a faraway Welsh island, the home was inhabited by a motley crew of children possessing supernatural powers. A girl who could levitate, a boy who burped bees, and human-faced dog (as opposed to a dog-faced boy, I suppose) – these were but a few of the home’s unusual residents. Abe’s contribution? Why, he battled monsters, of course!

Now 16, Jacob recognizes the stories as fiction – at best, fairy tales meant to entertain a child; at worst, a kind of practical joke that hinged on his naivety and willingness to believe. (More astute readers may also identify Abe’s tales as allegories for the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. Abe’s family – both of them – were decimated during the war.) That is, until his grandfather dies suddenly and under mysteriously circumstances. Abe’s last words to his grandson set Jake on a path that will eventually carry him to the island of Cairnholm – and to Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children.

The highlight of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is, without a doubt, the photographs. Riggs weaves the story around forty-four oddball vintage photographs, culled from the archives of ten collectors (including that of the author himself). The result is both arresting and charming; while the photographs merge seamlessly with the plot, you’ll find yourself wondering about the true context of each. (Some historical background would’ve been awesome, but likely there’s little information to be had – the appendix notes that many of the photos were rescued from “giant bins of unsorted snapshots at flea markets and antiques malls and yard sales.”) Many of the subjects look as though they’d be at home in a David Lynch project. Twins in ruffled collars, I’m looking at you!

– Minor spoilers follow! –

(More below the fold…)