Both of these trilogies are semi-autobiographical works of historical fiction, ostensibly written for ages 9 to 11. I say “semi-autobiographical”, but from what I’ve read, the books very closely mirror the author’s lives.
Judith Kerr’s novels follow a family of German Jewish refugees that fled the Nazis in 1933. The first volume, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, describes the adventures of nine-year-old Anna and her family as they move to Switzerland, and then to France and finally to England. I was a budding francophile and I adored this book with its descriptions of struggling in a new language and its loving portrait of Paris in the springtime. The magical scene where the family walks around the city all night to celebrate Bastille Day, eating escargots and dancing with strangers to accordion music, is something I’m subconsciously trying to evoke whenever I visit Europe.
The second book, The Other Way Round, depicts Anna and her family during the Blitz in London. In A Small Person Far Away, Anna – now a full-fledged Brit working for the BBC – is summoned to the bedside of her now-widowed mother in Berlin. I think Kerr intended the first book to be written for young children, but as Anna becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the line between kid’s book and grown-up book begins to blur.
Kerr’s quiet, understated (and very British) voice describes the struggles of refugee life with poignancy and humour. The dialogue which I have excerpted below is from the second book and is between Anna and her Papa. Papa is one of my all-time favourite book characters: an author revered in his native Germany whose books were among the first to be burned, who was unable to publish anything after he left his country. He is dignified, impractical, absent-minded, wise and incredibly lovable. When I first read it, I was flabbergasted that someone had articulated what I had always felt about writing and couldn’t quite describe:
“The chief point about these last, admittedly wretched years,” he said, “is that it is infinitely better to be alive than dead. Another is that if I had not lived through them I would never have known what it felt like.”
“What it felt like?”
He nodded. “To be poor, even desperate, in a cold, foggy country where the natives, although friendly, gargle some kind of Anglo-Saxon dialect…”
She laughed uncertainly.
“I’m a writer,” he said. “A writer has to know. Haven’t you found that?”
“I’m not a writer,” said Anna.
“You may be one day. But even an aspiring painter –“ He hesitated, only for a moment. “There is a piece of me,” he said carefully, “quite separate from the rest, like a little man sitting on my forehead. And whatever happens, he just watches. Even if it’s something terrible. He notices how I feel, what I say, whether I want to shout, whether my hands are trembling — and he says, how interesting! How interesting to know what it feels like.”
Bernice Thurman Hunter’s Booky trilogy appears to be very autobiographical. The edition I read contains black-and-white portraits of the author and her family, as well as archival photographs from Eaton’s and The Globe and Mail. Beatrice Thomson (nicknamed Booky by her mother) is a scrappy, undernourished child of a large family struggling to survive the Depression.
The best feature of the novels is Hunter’s meticulous descriptions of life in 1930s Toronto. The books were fascinating to read for their historical detail alone. As for the rest, I was disappointed. Booky is a shallow heroine whom I couldn’t bring myself to care about (I felt more empathy for her parents), and Hunter’s writing style is jerky and stilted. Each chapter is episodic (like episodes from someone’s life, maybe?), and I felt there was no real storyline to draw the threads of the plot together.
Reading Age: 9-11, although A Small Person Far Away has some pretty heavy themes, including survivor guilt, suicide, post-war reconstruction in Berlin, and living far away from your aging parents. Which is kind of a weird assessment since the books also deal with war, poverty, and the Holocaust – but I feel that these are familiar children’s book topics!
Rating: A for Anna, B for Booky.