All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Then by Morris Gleitzman

on September 30, 2019

Then (Once #2)
Morris Gleitzman
Puffin Books
2008, 182p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Felix and Zelda have escaped the train to the death camp, but where do they go now? They’re two runaway kids in Nazi-occupied Poland. Danger lies at every turn of the road.

With the help of a woman named Genia and their active imaginations, Felix and Zelda find a new home and begin to heal, forming a new family together. But can it last?

Morris Gleitzman’s winning characters will tug at readers’ hearts as they struggle to survive in the harsh political climate of Poland in 1942. Their lives are difficult, but they always remember what matters: family, love, and hope.

I didn’t intend to read the second in this series so soon. But the first book ends on such a cliffhanger and these are so short and easy to read as an adult and my son was asking me “Are you going to read Then now Mum? Are you? When are you going to read Then?” because he wanted to talk about it so I ended up picking it up the day after I finished Once. 

So this book picks up literally right after the end of Once. Felix and Zelda and several others were on a train to a ‘death camp’ when they were able to escape by jumping off and rolling. It’s a bit of a lottery – if you survive the fall (the trains must not go very fast in order for anyone to survive these falls) the Nazis also have people stationed on the roof with guns to shoot survivors. So you kind of have to jump, roll, play dead and hope. For Felix and Zelda, they are two of the lucky ones in that they survive and don’t get shot. But now they’re in unfamiliar territory and they’re very much targets. It’s also hard to know who is friendly and who is foe because there is a reward for turning over Jewish people to the Nazis. Even if you find someone that offers you food and shelter, they may just be planning to lure you in before collecting the reward.

But Felix and Zelda do get lucky again – they’re found by Genia, who admits she doesn’t like Jewish people but she hates the Nazis even more. She was a farmer, although the Nazis took most of her produce. Her husband is away fighting in the war and Genia disguises them and educates them about life under Nazi rule. The things they must do, the things they must say, the ways in which they must act. She invents new backgrounds for them, gives them new names (Wilhelm and Violetta, continuing the theme of the books that Felix likes) and peroxides their hair so that they might pass as her German niece and nephew, come to live with her after the death of their mother. It’s important they must remember to do and behave as she has instructed, which for young children is really, really difficult.

Especially for Zelda. Poor Zelda, I was equal parts frustrated by her and aching for her in this book. She’s so young – about six. My youngest just turned eight, so I have to wind him back a couple of years and try and place him in this situation and imagine how he might act. Kids just have no filter a lot of the time. They say what pops into their head and it can be really hard for them to stifle that urge, even when they know what they say will get them into trouble. This is that situation, times about a million. Zelda is also dealing with the conflicting feelings she has about losing her parents and what she discovered about them. Felix keeps trying to get her to remember the good times but Zelda is really struggling with that and her attitude also means that she’s pretty incapable of being subservient and respectful when Nazis and soldiers are around. She sticks her tongue out, she pulls faces, she stares at them directly, she makes comments. On one hand, it’s like ok Zelda go for it. You’re an orphan because of this, your friends will die because of this (Zelda isn’t Jewish so she has this kind of get out of jail free card but then she does things like bite Nazis). She’s absolutely full of fire and personality but she does get a bit much at times when all they’re trying to do is survive. You just have to keep remembering how young and damaged she is. In some ways, it’s admirable she is who she is. She doesn’t change herself, make herself less in order to become what they expect, how they want children or followers to behave. But on the other hand I’m like “everyone is going to die if she doesn’t stop”. And perhaps she doesn’t quite grasp that, even though she’s seen people die. Perhaps she does and she doesn’t care. Felix though, who just wants to protect her, for them to stay together and alive, finds this incredibly stressful. And he’s only 10.

These two books have had horrific things happen throughout. Felix and Zelda have seen terrible things. Zelda lost her parents, Felix has come to ugly realisations about the fate of his. They’ve seen people beaten and killed, they’ve escaped Nazi death trains. But I was still unprepared for the ending of this book. I actually had to read it several times to make sure it was saying what I thought it was saying. How could this happen? And yet, it was probably always going to happen. But that didn’t make me any less traumatised by it. Even with everything I’d read, I was still shocked by it. And I knew that I’d be having discussions about what had happened with my older son too (and we did). These books aren’t graphic, but they don’t pull any punches either. They are the best and worst of this time seen through a child’s eyes for other children to experience. And as an adult, I’m really appreciating it too.


Book #149 of 2019

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