Is there anything bleaker than a wintry Polish countryside in the early 1940s? The cold, and the search for anything edible, even if it’s just a turnip. Then imagine you’re a ten-year-old Jewish orphan trying to hide from the Nazi soldiers, while looking after a six-year-old girl whose life you have saved. There’s a reward for people handing Jews over to the Germans, and those who offer the Jews shelter are hung in the main town square as a warning to others.
When I read Once by Morris Gleitzman I wasn’t even sure the boy Felix survived at the end of the book, but he obviously did, as he’s still here in Then, the sequel. There is so much warmth and humour in Then, just as in Once, and it’s almost unbelievable that it’s possible to tell such a sad and serious story and still be amusing.
I don’t often quote from books, but here is something from page 1; “You know how when you and two friends jump off a train that’s going to a Nazi death camp and you nearly knock yourself unconscious but you manage not to and your glasses don’t even get broken but your friend Chaya isn’t so lucky and she gets killed so you bury her under some ferns and wild flowers which takes a lot of strength and you haven’t got much energy left for running and climbing?” That’s what Felix is like.
Felix also prays to Richmal Crompton for help and moral support throughout the book, and she does help, so it’s a case of who you believe in.