Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Children's War by Monique Charlesworth

On Memorial Day I took a flight that connected through Chicago O'Hare airport, which had had thunderstorms earlier in the day. The resulting delays backed up air traffic such that my originating flight (into O’Hare) was delayed for 3 ½ hours, and my connecting flight out of O'Hare was also delayed for about the same amount of time. In both cases we were never certain whether the flight would actually leave until we were airborne; on the first flight it wasn't even clear whether we would be able to land in Chicago, or if we might be diverted to another city. A trip that is typically about four hours took about ten hours and that extra time was spent not in the terminal but waiting on the plane on the tarmac, where it was hot, dark, and crowded. We didn't arrive home until nearly 2:00 am, tired, hungry, and unhappy.

The claustrophobia and uncertainty of this trip was perfectly suited to the book I had brought along, but in a bad way. The Children's War is the story of Ilse Blumenthal, a German half-Jewish teenage girl, and her repeated attempts to flee from the Nazis, first from Morocco where she has been sent to live with her uncle, and later from France where she has ended up through a series of misadventures, separated from her mother and uncle, stranded with (and at times responsible for) her father, upon whom she cannot rely. Her papers are "not in order," her father is emotionally paralyzed by his broken dreams of a worker's revolution; she is frequently alone and must survive by her wits and luck. Around every corner is a roadblock with soldiers checking documents; in every chapter is a train upon which she must hide, or an air raid from which she must seek shelter.

The book also has a parallel story about Ilse's mother, living in Hamburg and working as a governess for a wealthy family. This story is equally filled with dread and disaster. I kept having to take deep breaths, and tell myself that no one was coming through the plane to check my documents, that even if this plane didn't leave, there would be another one, because I wasn't on the last train out of Paris before the Germans arrived, that even though I was hungry now, there would be good food for me somewhere soon, instead of turnips and ersatz coffee, the only things available to Ilse without a valid ration book.

Had I read this book on a beach, I would have enjoyed it more. Ilse is a brave survivor, and her story is compelling. Her parents are complex, ambivalent characters whose motivations are multi-layered. Even minor characters such as Renee, the good-hearted prostitute, and Francois, the dashing resistance leader, could be clich├ęs, but manage to avoid this fate. I especially liked the vivid descriptions of places in the book: Morocco, Paris, Marseilles, Hamburg.

Here is a link to a review.
(Book 25, 2006)

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