Tag Archives: Melinda Szymanik

Remember them

At the back of The Missing Michael Rosen recommends many excellent books, both fiction and non-fiction, mostly on WWII related topics, but also books in a similar vein from later on. Because we never learn, and someone, somewhere is always doing something bad to another human being.

I thought I’d mention a few books here too, before we start forgetting again. It’s anything but an exhaustive list, and I have tried to choose books that are seen more from the German or European side of the war, and actually during the war.

One I share with Michael is The Children of Willesden Lane, by Mona Golabek with Lee Cohen. Admittedly, this one is set in London, but not being fiction it shows the fates of unaccompanied German minors.

The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monika Hesse. This is about the resistance in Amsterdam.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik, begins in Poland and then turns into that awful kind of forced transport of innocent people to somewhere a long way away.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, which features Ravensbrück as seen from the inside.

Once, Then, Now, After, Soon, Maybe, Always. All by Morris Gleitzman. All – probably – wonderful. I say probably, because I’ve not managed to keep up with the last ones. But there are ways of remedying that.

A Winter’s Day in 1939

It’s more than that. It’s most of the war, but the story began on that winter’s day in Poland in 1939, when WWII was new and people hoped it might soon be over.

Melinda Szymanik’s book brings home the sheer pointlessness of much that happened in the war. The fighting itself is not good, but it at least has a purpose, however bad. But it’s the putting people into concentration camps or carting them across half a continent, simply because they are ‘unwanted’ and no one can think what to do with them, that really gets to me.

After American Rose’s internment in Ravensbrück in Rose Under Fire, and the interminable travels of all those Lithuanians in Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray, as they are shunted from place to place, I have read more of the same. Only now it’s Poles who are taken on a strange journey where no one wants them. They are to be kept out of the way.

The story about Adam and his family is based closely on the real experiences of Melinda’s father Leszek. First the Russians come and take thousands of Polish families through Russia because they are somehow the enemy. After enduring a couple of years of cold winters and unbearable summers doing hard, but pointless work, including seeing members of their family die; when Germany invaded Russia ‘they were transformed from being an inconvenience into something useful.’

After more politics the British take over and the Polish soldiers end up fighting for them instead. They are taken from the cold north to the warm Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and ultimately to Persia. But it’s not only war that kills the new soldiers. Illness spreads even before they have fought. More people die.

Mercifully the descriptions in A Winter’s Day are sketchy at times, and there actually is no need to go into excrutiating detail. It is grim, and it becomes quite clear what made this a world war. It wasn’t merely that many countries fought, but that people ended up fighting in the most unexpected places, where they didn’t belong, for armies other than their own.

And afterwards they are in many cases displaced forever, needing or wanting to start new lives somewhere else. That’s why Melinda is a New Zealander.

The Half Life of Ryan Davis

For a while there, you think you’re reading a fairly standard teen ‘angst’ novel, about a 15-year-old boy whose dead, older sister Mallory leaves a very long shadow over the lives of the survivors in the family. But after a while, you realise that you are up against something new and different.

It’s not only different because it is a New Zealand novel, with all the exotic-ness that comes from a ‘somewhere else’ that seems so British, but isn’t. Melinda Szymanik must have thought of the standard angsty plot, and then turned it around.

Melinda Szymanik, The Half Life of Ryan Davis

Ryan is trying to live his own life, but his by now single mother is scared that the same fate awaits him and his younger sister. Maybe they too will just disappear one day, snatched by some evil monster.

As both siblings find love and strike out more independently, Ryan is spooked by seeing their older sister in places when he’s out. And the phone rings, with silence at the other end. Could Mallory be alive?

The answer won’t be what you think. You’ve been lulled into this domestic drama of normal arguments, and then you find that in actual fact it’s…

(And it was only when I saw the cover image as a jpeg that I noticed the girl in the background…)