Morris Gleitzman’s Holocaust series for younger readers has already attracted much praise and many accolades. His stories carefully balance the reality of what actually happened with modern day sensibilities. Sad, bad things happen to his characters, but he doesn’t describe them in gory detail. There is bleakness and injustice and cruelty, but there is also hope, love and mercy. And we all know that Felix survives the war, thanks to book number 3, Now.
Once is 10 yr old Felix’s story about trying to find his parents. He is befriended by the spunky, Zelda and sheltered by a dentist called Barney, who is modelled on the real life Polish Jewish doctor who took in and cared for war orphans. Felix uses stories to make sense of the crazy things going on around him and to protect the traumatised Zelda. But, ultimately, Once is the story of lost innocence as Felix finally realises and accepts what is really happening.
Then is the heart-breaker.
The reality of the war and the horror of the Holocaust are really brought to bear in book 2. Gleitzman doesn’t shy away from tough details or sadness, but then, how could you write a meaningful story about the Holocaust without them? The magic ingredient in all these books is hope. Felix is always optimistic and despite what awful things might happen, he always finds his way back to a position of hope.
I read the first three books of this series in a huge binge session one rainy, cold weekend. After wiping away my tears at the end of Then, I picked up Now straight away, desperate to find out what happened next. I cannot begin to tell you the huge relief I felt, as I realised that Felix not only survived the war and all the terrible things that happened to him, but fathered at least one child!
Now jumps forward 70 years and we meet an 80 yr old Felix living in Melbourne. He is spending time with his granddaughter, Zelda. But bushfires threaten to disturb the peaceful life that Felix has made for himself as a doctor in Australia. Now is a story about closure, memory and forgiveness.
And Felix’s story could have finished there. That was the plan.
But Felix had other ideas.
After takes us back to the war. Felix is now 12 yrs old and has been hiding out in Gabriek’s barn for 2 years. When things go bad, he finds himself in the forest with the partisans learning to fight. They also teach Felix some basic doctoring techniques and he quickly realises that he has a knack for it – more so than for fighting and killing. This is a story about the choices we make.
Soon is the tragic tale of what happens when the war finally ends. The horror, the cruelty and the hunger do not disappear just because the war is over. New threats and new fears throw out any ideas that Felix may have had that he only needed the war to end to feel safe and secure again. Instead his post-war life is filled with worry and despair. How can he stay hopeful when everything seems absolutely hopeless? Soon is a story about dreams and imagination.
Maybe is the refugee story that I thought Felix would want to tell us about. He is now 14 yrs of age and in the process of emigrating to Australia. This is his chance to live a in safe, modern world, where he can put his past behind him. But not all Australians welcome the idea of accepting an influx of war orphans and sadly, orphanages can be good – or bad – in any country.
Felix has had to grow up fast and the only thing that bugged me about this book was his voice. At times I wondered if Gleitzman was going to suddenly tell us that Felix was on the autism spectrum. The naive, childish voice didn’t match Felix’s life experience at all. It jarred. It was like he’d been allowed to grow up physically and intellectually, but not emotionally. The trauma of war, can do that to a person for sure, and maybe that’s what Gleitzman was trying to get at. But it felt like a flaw in the story that Felix did not sound like a 14 yr old.
The simple storytelling style of 10 yr old Felix has not been allowed to mature and evolve into a teen story. Yet….
This reader, for one, is always hopeful and optimistic.
Gleitzman’s webpage is a treasure trove of information about his books – for dedicated readers, teachers and parents. He also has lists of books that inspired or helped him with his research for this series.