Recommended for ages 12 and up
I have to say I was more than surprised when I picked up this slim volume by Morris Gleitzman. Wait a minute, I said to myself, isn't he the wacky Australian author who writes those wickedly funny books about cane toads? Not the first author one would think of to write a book on one of the most tragic events in human history. Then I remembered The Entertainer and the Dybbuk, written by the very funny Sid Fleischman, and I knew that reading Once was a must for me.
I must start by saying there are no toads in this story, but Gleitzman does manage to make the book both comic and tragic at the same time, no mean feat for any writer tackling this difficult subject matter. The story is narrated by Felix, a young boy who has lived hidden for the past 3 1/2 years at a Catholic orphanage in Poland not far from the village where his parents had a bookstore.
The book starts:
"Once I was living in an orphanage in the mountains and I shouldn't have been and I almost caused a riot. It was because of the carrot."
Felix believes that the incredible fact that his thin bowl of soup contains a whole carrot just for him is a secret sign that his parents are about to come to take him home. Instead of his parents, however, a "bunch of men in suits with armbands" arrive, and soon there's a bonfire in the orphanage courtyard. What is burning? Felix convinces himself that Mother Minka, the head of the orphanage, must have "called in profesional librarians in professional librarian armbands. They've reorganized the library, and now they're burning the books that are left over."
Felix decides he must try to find his parents and tell them that the Nazis are burning Jewish books. But first he decides to return to his village and hide the books from the store. Despite the fact that one of the other children tries to tell him that the Nazis are dangerous and that he shouldn't leave the safety of the orphanage, Felix responds, "I know what they're doing. They're burning books." Until he leaves the orphanage, he has no understanding at all as to what is happening in his homeland. The naivete of Felix resembles Bruno, the German boy in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as well as the main character in Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed. On his journey back to his village, Felix hears gunshots and thinks people are out hunting. The reader knows the sound is probably Nazis shooting Jews.
When Felix arrives at his village, he discovers that not only has another family moved into his parents' store and house, but all the books are gone as well. When a sympathetic Polish neighbor finds him, he tells Felix that all the Jews are gone, relocated to the city, and gives Felix some food and water. As Felix continues his journey, he encounters a burning house, where he rescues a little girl whose parents have been murdered and who has been left for dead. Gleitzman manages to mix some humor into this otherwise horrific scenario. Zelda, the rescued girl, is a spunky child, who alternates between asking for Felix to tell her stories and scolding him with her favorite refrain, "Don't you know anything?" But when Felix and Zelda encounter a road crowded with Jews walking to the city--men, women, children, and old people--wearing armbands with Jewish stars, which he assumes are so they can recognize other members of their group, the awful truth of the situation begins to slowly dawn on him. "Maybe it's not just our books the Nazis hate. Maybe it's us."
Felix and Zelda finally arrive at the city, but as the reader suspects, his parents are nowhere to be found. When a Nazi soldier tries to separate him from Zelda, a Jewish man intervenes, and takes the children away. This character, a dentist in this novel, is inspired by Janusz Korczak, the Polish doctor and author who ran an orphanage for Jewish children, and chose to die with them in the camps rather than abandon them.
Despite Felix's tragic circumstances, the reader can't help but laugh at comic elements of the story such as his encounter with a farmyard pig, who he hopes can give him directions. Or when Barney, the dentist, takes Felix with him when he goes to treat the toothache of a Nazi officer, to entertain the officer with stories so he won't notice the pain. Felix tells the officer a story about Nazi soldiers in a remote African village. "I make up the most exciting and thrilling story I can, with lots of vicious wild animals and poisonous insects who say nice things about Adolf Hitler...the Nazi officer was smiling by the time I was half-way through the story. By the time I'd described how the two German soldiers turned the windmill into a giant water pump and built a lake for the African kids to go ice-skating on, he was laughing. He made me carry on with the story even after Barney finished drilling."
From the very beginning of the book we see that Felix is a boy who lives through the power of stories. In fact, he carries around a notebook given to him by his parents in which he writes down the wild stories of his imagination. In the end, however, stories alone cannot save him and the other children in the ghetto from the Nazis. While packed into a cattle car for deportation to the death camps, Felix realizes that his story notebook has a more practical value; as toilet paper in the "toilet corner" of the train car. At the end of the book, this "toilet paper" leads to a discovery that allows Felix and Zelda to make a daring escape from the moving train car. Their adventures are continued in the novel Then, unfortunately not yet available for the U.S. market. The third book in the trilogy, Now, was just released in May 2010 in Australia, New Zealand and the U.K.
Gleitzman provides a short afterword in which he explains that although the story is fiction, that it was inspired by real events. His grandfather, like mine, was a Polish Jew who left well before the Holocaust, but whose extended family were murdered by the Nazis. Although the story of Felix is fictional, Gleitzman did extensive research on young people during the Holocaust, and provides some links to further information on his website. There is also a discussion guide for teachers and/or parents on the Henry Holt site.
This is an outstanding addition to the books on the Holocaust aimed at young readers. It's a must for school and public libraries.