• Books and reading

    Startling: ‘The Visitors’ by Jane Harrison

    Immediately this book opens, we know we are in for a startlingly different view of the British ships, sailing into Sydney harbour in 1788.

    The First Nations people of the lands surrounding Sydney are portrayed in a rich cultural context (informative and easy to absorb within the story), however they have European names and wear modern European dress. What does this mean? What is happening here? We are left to wonder.

    It is an effective device to ensure that readers approach this story with a different mindset than they might otherwise do. Especially if the readers have been raised in Australia, and grown up with the story of Captain Phillip planting the British flag in the sand of Sydney cove in the name of His Majesty King George.

    Instead, we see the ships from a vantage point above the cove, where seven respected Elders, representatives of their various nations, have come together for a day to collectively decide what their response to these ‘visitors’ should be.

    The cover blurb of the book reads:

    1788, Gadigal country.
    Eleven ships.
    Seven Elders.
    One day.

    They’ve got a big decision to make…

    The Visitors

    It’s a brilliant premise and the reader is plunged into the many considerations and issues that the seven men need to take into account as they ponder their response to this unprecedented situation.

    Some of the older men remember the time, eighteen years earlier, when similar ships had appeared and strange looking men disembarked. In their short time on land, those men had cut down trees, trampled precious clean water to mud, and took ridiculous amounts of seafood from the waters. But that time, those visitors left and did not return. Perhaps the same thing would happen again?

    Each of the seven men representing their mob have their own backstory: a set of family, cultural and tribal circumstances that affect their behaviour and how they approach the discussion and voting. This allows the reader to see them first of all as people – with their own preoccupations and motivations.

    I enjoyed the portrayal of the tensions, petty squabbles, and individual behaviours of the seven. It meant I could approach their story as I could that of any other people dealing with a sudden and unexpected arrival of uninvited visitors of their country.

    Within the narrative of a long day of arguments, counter arguments and vote-taking, the author has woven in a great deal of beautifully described customary lore and traditions. It includes one of the best and easiest-to-understand explanations of songlines:

    Songs, Joseph knows, are a living map of country – where the fresh water is, the good fishing spots, the whereabouts of steep crevices or marshy swamps and all of the other signposts, so you don’t get lost or travel the hard way. And all songs are three-dimensional, referring to the stars above and the earth and even below the seas. And the songs are always evolving and being shared. They are maps for all who need them to travel for food, for shelter or, like him, for business. And they are sung, because singing is the most effective way to memorise great swathes of data.

    The Visitors, p33

    The use of modern expressions by the men also helps to bring us into our own time, with an understanding that these men represent a spectrum of life experiences and attitudes – much like today’s representatives in our modern parliaments.

    There is a telling moment when the men are faced with the idea that perhaps, this time, the strangers won’t leave, and a great deal of irony as well-worn European-centrist ideas about ‘barbarism’, ‘a dying race’, ‘thieves’ ‘superior weapons’ and ‘capable of learning’ are turned on their head.

    This book invites us to ask those ‘what if?’ questions: what if the First Nations peoples of Sydney had attacked in a concerted effort to rid their lands of these foreigners? What if the British had been able to listen and learn from the original inhabitants of the continent? What if the diseases brought by those ships had not wreaked such a terrible toll? So many things we can never know, but in the asking of the questions, there is learning to be had.

    In a profound way, one of the men, Gary, sums up what was important for those Elders and still remains important today:

    Just because they break lore, doesn’t mean we should. Then they’ve won, in a way, before even one spear has been thrown. I think we need to be good ancestors.What are the stories a good ancestor needs to create, to leave behind? Do we want our descendants to look behind them and see that we have failed in our duty, that we succumbed to the lowest denominator? Or do we want them to be proud of us and the stance we took?…I’m voting to let them land and that we do what we always do: we follow protocol to the letter. That means when they step on country, we welcome them and wish them safe passage.

    The Visitors p222-223

    If only those ‘visitors’ could have been so generous and gracious in their response.

    The Visitors is published by Fourth Estate in August 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    What if? : ‘The Paris Notebook’ by Tessa Harris

    Tessa Harris writes fiction featuring stories about women in WWII. The Light We Left Behind tells of women in intelligence roles at Trent Park, where German officers were held as prisoners in England. The Paris Notebook explores a fascinating ‘what if?’ scenario of the late 1930’s: as Europe was poised for war, what could have happened if the deep-rooted psychiatric problems of Adolf Hitler had become public knowledge? Would it have been enough for Germany to avoid the looming disaster of his making?

    It’s easy for us today to assume that the serious psychological flaws of someone like Hitler would have been obvious to everyone who mattered. Let’s not forget that within Germany and elsewhere, there were many who agreed with his views on race and how to solve Germany’s economic and social problems. He had admirers in many places.

    As an aside, let’s also not overlook the fact that the United States of America has already elected someone like Trump to be its leader, and may even do so again – despite damning information about the man now in the public domain.

    So, it obviously takes more than information to change minds. As we see with responses to climate change (or lack of them) despite the plethora of scientific evidence now available.

    Having said that, the premise of this novel is an tantalising one. The author’s note explains the real historical facts of the ‘notebook’ of the book’s title, and it’s not hard to see how the publication of a psychiatrist’s clinical notes on Hitler would have been an intelligence bombshell, had it been able to be deployed in time.

    And it is this which forms the core of the book. The protagonist is Katya, a young German woman who is employed by a psychiatrist to type out his clinical notes on Hitler, in the hope that they can be published, and so possibly avert Germany pursuing the path to war. Both Katya and Dr Viktor are nursing emotional wounds caused by the Nazis and the stakes are high. They end up traveling to Paris to try to persuade a publisher there to take up the story.

    The author paints a vivid picture of how Germans opposed to the Nazis live in fear of discovery and brutal retribution. It’s contrasted with France, where before war is declared, many people seem determined to ignore the threat posed by Nazi Germany and pretend that nothing is amiss.

    Events catch up with everyone as all-out war erupts across Europe, and Dr Viktor and Katya are embroiled in a dangerous cat-and-mouse tussle with German agents over possession of the explosive notes.

    In Paris, they meet Daniel, a world-weary Irish journalist nursing his own grief, who joins their cause.

    The romance in the story did not work for me, and the ending really did not: a little too neat for my taste.

    I was willing to overlook both of these issues because I found the rest of the story gripping and I felt invested in the publication of the doctor’s work – even though I already knew the big-picture outcome.

    There is a real trend in historical fiction featuring women’s often overlooked roles and experiences in WWII. The Paris Notebook offers another take on the genre, with that intriguing ‘what if?’ question at its centre.

    The Paris Notebook is published by HQ Fiction, in July 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    ‘The Hidden Book’ by Kirsty Manning

    The sixth novel by Australian author Kirsty Manning explores the legacy of WWII trauma and loss over several generations.

    It was inspired by the true story of an album of photographs smuggled out of Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The graphic and shocking photographs were taken by an inmate of the camp under instructions from the camp commander, who wanted five albums made to present to his superior officers – itself a rather sickening act, I think.

    The photographer risked all to create a sixth copy of each photo, which he kept hidden, until they could be smuggled out and kept in safety by a local villager. After the war, the photos were used by prosecutors during the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The album was brought to Australia in the 1970’s and today is kept at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

    From these historical events, the author has woven a tale of courage and heartbreak, the pain that memories can inflict and the importance of truth telling. She has imagined how the album got to be in Australia, creating a cast of fictional characters and relationships that are entirely believable and compelling.

    Hannah is a teenager in 1980’s rural Australia with her mum, who emigrated from then-Yugoslavia and married an Australian man. Hannah’s father has died and she has a difficult and complicated relationship with her mother, Roza; but she adores her grandfather Nico, who visits every few years.

    On his last visit he leaves a mysterious book, wrapped in an ordinary calico bag. Roza refuses to allow Hannah to see it and hides the book, but Hannah later finds it. What she sees are confronting images, bewildering to her young eyes. Over the years, she learns about the war, the Holocaust and the camps, and longs to see the album again, to make better sense of it and to understand the legacy Nico’s experiences have left for her family. She studies history at university and decides to undertake an honours thesis, on aspects of WWII camps related to her grandfather’s experiences:

    You couldn’t rewrite history, but you could explore different ways to study it and bring it into the present political and cultural domain…the whole of Mauthausen, inside and outside the camp, needed to be treated with reverence and remembrance. The question of how to present and tell stories of the past could perhaps be one of the backbones of her thesis.

    The Hidden Book, ebook location 123 of 221

    Alternating with Hannah’s contemporary story are those of Nico during his long years at Mauthausen camp; Santiago, a young Spanish boy who helps the photographer Mateo in the darkroom; and Lena, a young woman in the village who is entrusted with the care of the photos. All of these characters risk punishment and likely death if their activities are discovered.

    The novel is a tale of incredible courage and endurance, and of completing a journey that began decades earlier for Nico, Roza and Hannah.

    It is a moving story about war and its aftermath. Readers who enjoy historical fiction with a foot firmly in real historic events, will love The Hidden Book.

    It is published by Allen & Unwin in August 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Digging up the past: ‘Missing Pieces’ by Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar

    This evocative novel by Australian author Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar is a lively combination of historical fiction, multiple timelines, and a dash of magical realism, centered around the story of the Lewis Chessmen collection.

    The tiny chess pieces were discovered in 1831 on the remote Scottish island of Lewis. They have been dated to the second half of the twelfth century and were carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth.

    Images of some of the pieces can be found on the British Museum’s website here. If you have a look you’ll see how intricately carved they are, with quirky, individual expressions and postures. Some pieces were included in the exhibition History of the World in 100 Objects which traveled from the Museum a number of years ago; I remember seeing these little characters in Canberra and was quite taken with them. Some pieces are in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh.

    There is much about the chessmen that is still shrouded in mystery and history, such as exactly where they were made and by whom, why they were buried, and if there are missing pieces and if so, why?

    The author has made good use of the historical known facts and the remote location of the find, to weave an engaging story across three timelines and settings: Iceland in the twelfth century, Lewis Island in the nineteenth century and in 2010, and London.

    The main character is Marianne, a lab assistant at the British Museum, whose master’s thesis was on cultural and national issues around the repatriation of museum artifacts to their places of origin. She is being undermined at every turn by a toxic manager; also facing a restructure of the museum’s staff, the recent trauma of her father’s death, a complicated relationship with her mother, a sad secret from her own past, and a crushing lack of confidence in her own worth and abilities.

    She is sent (reluctantly) to Lewis Island to accompany twelve of the pieces from the BM, for an exhibition on the island on which they were found nearly a hundred and eighty years earlier. Here she meets several locals who give her a refreshing new way of seeing history, including her own.

    Marianne sank into a warm fog, letting the music wash over her. With it came a twinge of envy for the way the locals all seemed connected to each other and to the music, joined by their history and stories of their past. An ache inside her grew.

    Missing Pieces loc. 1187 of 3824 (eBook)

    The story caught my attention from the start, because of the chessmen at its centre, but also its focus on issues of return of cultural artifacts. It’s a topic which has been in the news of late, including here in Australia, as many Aboriginal objects of spiritual and cultural significance have been kept in museums overseas, including the BM.

    Also, I share Marianne’s mother, Shona’s, passion for family history research and was amused at the eye rolls it sometimes induces in Marianne – I am pretty sure my own interest elicits a similar response in all but fellow family historians. The time slip quality of parts of the novel appealed to the side of me that dreams of time travel (in a safe and totally reversible manner, of course!)

    Most of all I enjoyed witnessing the development of Marianne from an uncertain, often prickly young woman who often feels out of her depth, to someone with more confidence in her knowledge and views and the ability to decide on her own future.

    The characters are believable and relatable and the various settings of time and place brought vividly to life.

    Missing Pieces is a terrific read, one I thoroughly enjoyed. It renewed my interest in the Lewis chessmen and spurred me to read more about them, and the island where they were re-discovered.

    Missing Pieces was published by Midnight Sun in June 2023.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    What connects us: ‘One Illumined Thread’ by Sally Colin-James

    A triumph of a debut novel, Australian author Sally Colin-James has created a beautiful story that travels between three different time periods, celebrating the things that connect us across centuries.

    The beautiful lyrical prose had me captivated from the first chapters, where there are hints of psychological trauma and great loss, but also plunged me into the past with the scents and tastes of the modern-day protagonist combined with those of the past.

    We travel back and forth in time and place, from ancient Judea to Renaissance Florence, to Adelaide in the current period.

    This is a novel for anyone who is enchanted by the spell that can be cast by an item, work of art, or moment from the past.

    The author’s note explains how a Renaissance painting she viewed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence sparked the idea that later became this book. She has woven a story connecting that painting with a black glass artefact from the ancient world and to an embroidery being restored by a textile conservator.

    It’s a complex novel, perhaps slightly on the slow side for those who like their fiction fast paced, but well worth persevering with. There is fascinating detail about the different worlds and times the characters inhabit, and the processes used to create things of beauty and meaning.

    Ultimately the novel is a hymn of praise to the act of creation in all its forms:

    How can I dare say that this work too is sacred, like grinding grain or baking? This is tsar. The act of creating. Of transforming one thing into another with simple breath. An act that might be called sinful should I express the elation it brings, how it makes my heart dance like the flickering fire that transforms grit into glass.

    One Illumined Thread p96

    Through the three main characters’ lives, we see how women’s existence is so often defined by service to others and by their fertility – or lack of – even in the present day. And the author shows how consolation and joy may be found in creative acts, no matter how small or large, fleeting or enduring. Beauty from the past continues to bring us pleasure and wonder, centuries later. This is why creativity matters to humankind as well as to the person who expresses their essential self through it:

    The line twists and coils and catches the light. I trace around it with my finger. Not a rope to hold onto, but a single bright stitch holding pieces together. Fragments of the past held in place by the present. Connected by one illumined thread.

    One Illumined Thread p321

    One Illumined Thread is a complex, beautiful novel about connections between women and between the past and the present.
    It is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Timeslip: ‘Running with Ivan’ by Suzanne Leal

    How do you explain to youngsters an event as unimaginable as the Holocaust in a way that elicits empathy and understanding rather than trauma?

    Australian author Suzanne Leal has chosen a timeslip novel that allows readers to imagine themselves in the midst of such horror, while relating it to modern-day concerns of children and teens. In the author’s words:

    The enormity of the Holocaust makes it almost impossible to comprehend. Mindful of this, I wanted to bring an immediacy to wartime Europe when writing Running with Ivan. That is why Leo – a boy from the twenty-first century with little understanding of the war and its impact – needed to find himself dropped right in the middle of it. Only then could he begin to understand what actually happened.

    Author’s Note, Running with Ivan p 308

    Leo is thirteen, unhappy at having to share a bedroom in his new home with his detestable stepbrother Cooper. He still misses his mum who died two years ago. Now his dad has remarried: to a nice woman with horrible sons. There is nowhere Leo can go to get away from Cooper and his older brother Troy. Until he discovers a corner of the unused garage, and his mother’s old wind-up music box.

    The music box proves to be a portal into the past, and Leo is transported to various times and places before, during and after World War II. He meets Ivan, who grows from a small child to a teenager as Leo appears and disappears. Ivan is Czech, and Jewish, and on each of Leo’s visits to his world, things are getting darker and more dangerous for Ivan and his family.

    On a later visit, Leo finds himself in Theresienstadt, a walled ghetto used by the Nazis as a concentration camp, from where they transported trainloads of people to Auschwitz. He takes a terrible risk to save his friends, Ivan and Olinda, from being put on a transport.

    The motif of running is used throughout the novel, as Leo discovers he has a talent for speed and finds that it soothes and distracts him from his problems at home and his worries about his Czech friends. There is a lovely link between his elderly coach, Mr Livingstone, and Leo’s wartime experiences, which is revealed at the end of the story.

    Throughout the novel, Leo learns more about the experiences of people during WWII; the grim realities of life in Europe at that time; and his own struggles with his family. He also learns that he can overcome difficulties:

    “Take it from me, Leo, at thirteen, you can do almost anything. Never forget this. Difficult things, courageous things: they are all possible, even at thirteen. No, especially at thirteen.”

    Running with Ivan, p39

    Running with Ivan is a terrific example of how timeslip stories can immerse a reader in the past (or future) while remaining connected to their own present. I was especially moved to read that the idea for the story came from the author’s friendship with a Czech man who had himself experienced the horrors of Theresienstadt.

    The book is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    After the gold rushes: ‘The Homecoming’ by Alison Stuart

    In her new book, Aussie author Alison Stuart once again demonstrates her deep knowledge and love for the parts of Victoria that were the scene of frenzied gold rushes in the mid 1800’s.

    The Homecoming is the third novel set in fictional Maiden’s Creek. The first two were The Postmistress and The Goldminer’s Sister.

    This new story is set two decades after the last in the 1890’s, when the gold seams around the township are mostly exhausted. Residents needed to find new ways of making a living. The protagonists are two characters from the earlier novels: Charlotte (Charlie) O’Reilly and Danny Hunt. No longer children, they are brought back to Maiden’s Creek after years spent developing careers elsewhere: Charlie as a nurse and Danny a lawyer.

    Both are dealing with the legacies of difficult circumstances from their childhoods and have returned to the town for different reasons.

    While working as Matron of the small cottage hospital, Charlie is embroiled in a series of events that bring escalating danger to her and to others. Danny is dodging an enemy from his past who is intent on doing him harm. Then the town is engulfed by a dangerous flood which threatens everyone.

    In the midst of all this, the pair find themselves increasingly pulled towards each other.

    I took a while to get fully involved in this novel, perhaps because I had read The Goldminer’s Sister in 2020 and my memory had to work hard to recall the characters and events from that story. Having said that, The Homecoming would also make a satisfying stand-alone read without reference to the earlier books. There is mystery, romance and some terrific characters; all of which add up to a great addition to Australian historical fiction shelves.

    The Homecoming is published by HQ Fiction in January 2023.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Delightful take on 40’s noir: ‘The Woman Who Knew Too Little’ by Olivia Wearne

    This is an account – with a twist – of the discovery and subsequent investigation of the ‘Somerton Man’ affair: one of the longest running unsolved mysteries in Australian history. In this re-telling of the events, it is a woman who narrates the story.

    In 1948, the body of a man is found dead at Somerton, an Adelaide beach. He is dressed well in a nice suit and good shoes – with all the clothing labels removed. He has no wallet or any possessions to identify him, and he is found sitting on the sand against the sea wall.

    He is first seen by Kitty Wheeler, a member of ‘Women Police’, tasked with patrolling streets and beaches in what is essentially a social welfare role. She and her partner spot the man but mistake his stillness for drunken sleep, and they decide to let the fellow sleep it off.

    When the mystery of the unknown man takes over the city’s police and newspapers, Kitty regrets the missed opportunity to be part of the investigation of the year, if not the decade.

    The setting of a novel about a female police constable against the backdrop of a famous mystery allows Olivia Wearne to examine the mores and values of the time. Kitty loves her work, despite the frustrating restrictions imposed on women, who are relegated to the so-called ‘soft’ issues of brothels, child welfare, domestic violence, vagrancy. Rarely allowed to be a part of an actual investigation, she still manages to inveigle herself into key aspects of the Somerton Man case, but she needs persistence and occasionally, impertinence, to be even heard by the ‘real’ police – the male detectives – handling the case.

    She also has family issues to contend with, and a loyal and loving fiancĂ© who is eager for her to tie the knot – which Kitty knows would be the end of her policing career. As the days go by, she becomes more and more obsessed with the Somerton Man investigation, consumed by the need to know who he was.

    This is very much a character driven novel, with a cast of personalities who come to life in the pages. The pacing was a little slow for me at times, but this was more than compensated by the brilliant use of clever language and descriptive writing. There is witty dialogue as Kitty (at times an ascerbic, prickly sort) engages with her colleagues, members of the public and family, capturing workplace and family dynamics brilliantly. The author makes inventive use of simile and metaphor that gave me some laugh-out-loud moments:

    Almost every passenger on the trolley held a newspaper up to their faces. MISSING FATHER AND SON FOUND IN MACABRE DISCOVERY. When the car pitched and swayed the commuters moved with it, like some jolly choreographed performance. Under cover of newsprint, they were feasting on the story, gorging on the Mangnosons’ misfortune.

    Peter let his head sink between his stooped shoulders. A forlorn droop, like a houseplant desperate for water. His torso rose and fell as he heaved in resignation. He hauled himself onto his feet, leaving his head hanging, and addressed his leather boots, whose untied laces appeared to be slithering away from him: ‘I think we need some time apart.’

    The Woman Who Knew Too Little pp220 &367

    The delightful cover and title advertise the book’s intent perfectly: take a well-known and long-lasting mystery from the 1940’s, marry it with tropes from classic noir novels and film, then mix it in with delicious irony and wickedly observant swipes and the hypocrisies of the time.

    The Woman Who Knew Too Little is published by HQ Fiction in February 2023.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

    #histficreadingchallenge
  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Final 2022 Reading Challenge Results

    I’m happy to say that my final two reading challenges for 2022 are complete.

    For the #AussieAuthor22 challenge, I aimed for the ‘Kangaroo’ level, which meant 12 books by Aussie authors, of which at least 3 had to be by female writers, 3 by male, 3 by an author new to me, and across at least 3 genres.

    I showed my (usual) clear bias towards female authors by reading 24 books. 4 books were by male authors, and 16 by authors new to me (which I’m pleased about as I like to expand my choice of authors.) And finally, 12 were from various different genres, including contemporary fiction, middle grade and young adult fiction, historical fiction (of course!), history, biography, fantasy and crime. As always, being part of a book group contributes to a wider range of titles and authors than I might otherwise choose (and a big thanks to my book group members for great reading and discussions this year.)

    My stand-out reads from Australian writers?
    After Story by Larissa Behrendt
    27 Letters to My Daughter by Ella Ward
    Tongerlongeter by Henry Reynolds & Nicholas
    Tiny Uncertain Miracles by Michelle Johnson

    Now to the #histficreadingchallenge:

    In 2022 I aimed for the ‘Mediaeval’ level, committing to reading 15 books of historical fiction, which I achieved. Just over 2/3 of those were by female authors. I guess that means that I’m more attracted to historical stories by women – perhaps because of the focus on the lives of women in the past that are so often obscured in both fiction and non-fiction?

    My favourite historical fiction reads for 2022?
    The Secret World of Connie Starr by Robbi Neal
    The Silence of Water by Sharron Booth
    The Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt

    pexels-photo-13088176.jpeg
    Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

    And now for 2023:

    I’ll be participating in all three challenges from this year again.

    For the Historical Fiction Challenge, once again I’ll be going for the ‘Mediaeval’ reader with 15 books.

    In the Aussie Author Challenge, my goal will be ‘Kangaroo’ – 12 books.

    And for the Non-fiction challenge I’ll again be a ‘Nibbler’ – 6 books from any of the 12 categories.

    What have been your reading favourites or achievements this year? What are you aiming for in 2023?
    Do let me know in the comments – I always love hearing about other people’s highlights. And happy reading!

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    All about empathy: ‘Waiting for the Storks’ by Katrina Nannestad

    Australian author Katrina Nannestad is back with another in her series for middle-grade readers, about children in WWII Europe. This one is about Polish youngsters stolen by the Nazis to further their hideous Lebensborn program, during which children and babies who looked ‘Aryan’ were taken to be Germanised and adopted into German families.

    The earlier books in this series, We Are Wolves and Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief dealt with the experiences of some German and Russian children.

    All of the stories are about empathy: understanding that there are always many ‘sides’ in warfare, and that children and non-combatants are always the victims, regardless of which side they come from.

    In Waiting for the Storks, Zofia is eight years old when she is kidnapped and taken away to become a ‘good German girl.’ The story accurately and sympathetically captures the ways in which brainwashing techniques such as punishment and reward, isolation and repetition are used to achieve the desired outcome – in this case, a complete obliteration of Zofia’s memories of her loving Polish family and home, and adoption of her new German identity.

    There are small acts of resistance. A lovely scene is in the camp as the children are forced to learn German, where they use the meaningless phrases they are being taught in a way that expresses their defiance:

    The nurse nods, satisfied. She walks away, but we keep speaking in German, because nurses have stethoscope ears and pinchy fingers and slappy hands and bad tempers.
    ‘Hello’, says Kat, ‘I am a boy.’
    ‘Hello, says Jadwiga, rubbing her bald head. ‘I am a potato.’
    ‘Goodbye,’ says Maria. ‘I must go to the bathroom.’
    We’re giggling now, sniggering into our soup. Even little Ewa. It’s brilliant, because we’re obeying the rules with our words, but not in our hearts.

    Waiting for the Storks p76

    A family game (‘Make a choice!) is used effectively as a motif throughout the story. So, where the choices with her parents were fun and light-hearted (Cream on your salami or gravy on your poppyseed cake? Make a choice!) they now become a survival strategy (Polish or German? Make a choice! and Orphan or beloved daughter? Make a choice!)

    The descriptions of the ‘Germanisation’ process are quite realistic and troubling. This is a book for mature younger readers who can deal with themes of sadness, loss, cruelty. The rewards are many, though, including a deeper understanding of the best and worst in humans. There is light and hope at the end which I believe is important for readers of this age group.

    Waiting for the Storks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.