• Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    What can be put right? ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ by Susanne Gervay

    This new historical fantasy / timeslip novel by Australian author Susanne Gervay is aimed at middle grade or younger ‘young adult'(YA) readers. I do love a good timeslip story – I still remember the pleasure I had reading Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow and the way it brought Sydney’s past to life. This one moves between 2000 in Sydney, to the winter of 1944 in Budapest, Hungary- perhaps Hungary’s darkest period during WWII. The novel is inspired by the author’s own family’s experiences in Budapest during the Holocaust and I particularly love that Ms Gervay honours her family story in this way.

    I think it it always hard, when deciding how much and what to tell youngsters about such awful events, to find that balance between honesty, not minimising the horrors, and respect for the sensitivities of younger readers. In my view this novel strikes the right note, visiting some of the crimes and atrocities committed by Nazis without becoming gratuitous. As always when I read historical fiction that includes events or people about whom I previously knew little, I looked for information on Hungary during WWII, and sure enough found references to the youth underground, the children’s houses in Budapest, the fascist Arrow Cross regime and the war crimes that took place along the banks of the river Danube. There is a terrific section at the back of the book that gives the historical facts of events and people included, in bite sized offerings just right for younger readers.

    I found the present tense narrative style, and short, almost staccato sentences, didn’t work for me, but that is just a matter of taste. The main characters (Louie, Bert, Teddy, Grandma and Pa) are believable and likeable and the fantasy elements flow well. I loved the motifs throughout: music, shoes and magnolias connect the past to the present in a natural and evocative way.

    The theme of the novel is perhaps summed up well in this quote:

    ‘Terrible secrets.’ Louie catches her breath.
    “Terrible secrets,’ Naomi repeats quietly. ‘We have to know the past, otherwise everything’s just a maze. We’re buried in lies and dead ends. It’s hard to find the way out then.’

    Heroes of the Secret Underground p137

    The three children at the centre of the story travel unwillingly back to a time when terrible deeds were done that became terrible secrets. They find that many things can’t be put right, but that there are some things that can.

    Heroes of the Secret Underground will suit middle grade and younger YA readers who enjoy fantasy elements in historical stories that explore some darker moments in history, but also show how unity, friendship and courage can help restore a balance.

    Heroes of the Secret Underground is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why memory matters: ‘I Want You to Know We’re Still Here’ by Esther Safran Foer

    This book’s subtitle is My family, the Holocaust and my search for truth. It is about momentous events in history (WWII, Nazi-occupied Europe and the Holocaust) but also about one family, their stories, and memory – the role it plays in defining us as individuals, as families and as a people. On the very first page the author sets the scene:

    I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history.

    I want you to know we’re still here p3

    The title refers to her stated aim in writing the book: to let her ancestors know that they were not forgotten and that the family lives on. Later, she writes, How I wished they could see all the good that came later: the births, bar mitzvahs, the graduations and weddings, the great- and great-great grandchildren. (p179) A lovely moment comes at the end of the book, when at a gathering of the now large extended family living in America, one of her grandchildren quips Take that, Hitler! (p223)

    In the pages of this thought-provoking exploration of what it means to survive, to make decisions about whether to walk away from the past, to learn about it or to silence it, the author traces her own personal experiences. She knew that her parents had memories too terrible to commit to words (p8), she’d seen photos of long-dead relatives who had no direct descendants to tell their stories, and she embarked on the complicated path to tracing her father’s life. This involved meeting and speaking to many people who had knowledge of or a connection with her extended family, her parents, grandparents and others. She travelled to Ukraine to visit the site of the village that had once stood in the countryside and was populated by many Jewish families, but later destroyed after the Jewish residents were murdered. Poignantly she was able to track down and finally meet family and descendants of the man who had hidden her father from the Nazis and thus saved his life.

    There is so much to think about in this book. The author’s personal experiences and reflections are moving. They also touch on issues that resonated with me, an Australian reader with no direct connection with the events described. Reading about the theory of ‘postmemory’ first introduced by an American woman called Marianne Hirsch, I was prompted to consider the experiences of indigenous Australians since European invasion and colonisation. For example:

    The idea is that traumatic memories live on from one generation to the next, even if the later generation was not there to experience these events directly…the stories one grows up with are transmitted so affectively that they seem to constitute memories in their own right…these inherited memories – traumatic fragments of events – defy narrative reconstruction.

    I want you to know we’re still here p23

    This description is also true of the inter-generational trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, from the numerous deaths by disease, the theft of land, the massacres, the policies of forced removal from livelihoods and families, and the incarcerations visited upon indigenous Australians during these years.
    (There are many indigenous authors who have published works of fiction and non fiction that explore some of the ways postmemory might well be a concept relevant to the Australian situation, including Melissa Lukashenko, (my review of Too Much Lip here) Tara June Winch (The Yield), Tony Birch (The White Girl), Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu), and Archie Roach (Tell Me Why), among many others.)

    There are some terrible events described in this book, including murders of men, women and children, mass graves, the theft of clothing and valuables from those killed, other atrocities committed by the Nazis or those who did their bidding. There are also moments of light, love and honourable behaviour, including this reflection:

    From a Jewish perspective, action is what counts. You do the right thing. The feelings come later.

    I want you to know we’re still here p222

    For me, that’s a sentiment impossible to argue against.

    I Want You to Know We’re Still Here will be published in Australia by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins, on 20 April 2020.
    Thanks to the publisher for the advance copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why we are still searching for meaning: Viktor Frankl’s book, seventy four years on

    Frankl first published Man’s Search for Meaning in Germany in 1946. It is a book about surviving the horrors of several Nazi concentration camps during WWII – and the book was written and published just one year after the war ended. On reading his account of what he saw and experienced in those camps, and the conclusions he drew about human psychology and behaviour, I was astounded that someone who had experienced what he had, could write with such heart and clarity so soon afterwards.

    Photo by David Alberto Carmona Coto from Pexels

    Before the war Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna. He was sent, along with his wife, to Auschwitz camp, and spent time at Dachau and other camps until liberation at the end of the war. By this time his family, except for a sister, had perished. He used his observations and his own experiences of life inside the camps, to further develop his psychological theory known as Logotherapy. In essence, Frankl came to believe that the sort of person the camps’ prisoners became during their time there, was the result of an inner decision that each prisoner made, as much as the experiences and conditions in the camps. Frankl died in 1997 at the grand age of 92.

    The version of his book I read was published by Penguin Random House in 2008, translated by Ilse Lasch, and comprised two parts: firstly an account of his wartime experiences, and secondly a description of his theory of Logotherapy and how the two are related. I will be honest and say that for me, the most gripping part was definitely the first, full as it is of acute observations of human behaviour under the most trying of circumstances imaginable.

    He describes the three stages of prisoner response to incarceration: The illusion of reprieve (characterised by shock, or when the individual imagines that what is to come will be short-lived, or not so bad); the phase of apathy (a kind of emotional death but also a very necessary protective shell); and the final stage which comes after freedom is restored, which can include everything from joy to bitterness.

    He states that every person’s deepest desire is for meaning and purpose in life. This can come through completing work or deeds, by experiencing and loving others or nature, beauty or culture, or by how we approach and experience the inevitable suffering that occurs in life.

    Frankl, commenting on prisoners who showed kindness to others despite their horrific treatment by guards and SS, stated that these individuals proved that:

    …everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

    p 74

    Several points made by Frankl in this book resonated for their modern parallels. His comment on the detrimental effects of prisoners’ uncertainty about the likely duration of their incarceration, or the possibility that they would die there, made me think of modern-day asylum seekers in immigration detention centres around the world, including those held in camps run on behalf of the Australian Government. For many of those prisoners, the uncertainty about how long they will remain prisoners is one of the most crippling aspects of their imprisonment.

    Like so much that is written about the Holocaust, Frankl’s experiences have been contested, and aspects of his earlier life, his account of his imprisonment, and his psycho-therapeutic theories and methods, have all been questioned. I suppose it is up to each of us to decide what we think about all this. However, I found Man’s Search for Meaning a very thought-provoking and engrossing read, seventy four years after its first publication.