Thursday, March 18, 2010

Double Review: A Faraway Island by Annika Thor & War Games by Audrey & Akila Couloumbis

I have a huge backlog of books to review, and it looks like both of these titles have been on my radar since before I started taking notes of where I was finding books. ~sigh~ But I can tell you that A Faraway Island won the 2010 Batchelder Award as the most outstanding book "originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English and published in the United States."

Why did I pair these two books together for a double review? Because they both share new (to me, at least) stories of the atrocities of World War II. It is both amazing and terrifying that 60+ years after that war, there are still stories to be told and discovered.

A Faraway Island was originally published in Sweden in 1996, and is the first in a series of stories about two Jewish sisters from Vienna, Stephie and Nellie, who have been sent to Sweden for their protection. Their parents are still in Austria, trying to secure documentation for the whole family to flee to America. Despite assurances that the sisters would live together, Stephie and Nellie are split up: Nellie lives with a warm family with other children and a kind foster mother called Auntie Alma. Stephie on the other hand is sent to live with Aunt Marta, a cold and stern woman who decorates Stephie's bedroom with a picture of Jesus and seems quick to anger. Stephie and Nellie have to adapt to their new lives as refugees, learning a new language and culture, in addition to the usual trials and tribulations of growing up. As their stay in Sweden grows longer and longer, Nellie easily slips into the ways of her new country, calling Auntie Alma "Mom" and speaking more often in Swedish than German, while Stephie despairs of ever getting home.

In a lengthy author's note, Thor explains that while Stephie and Nellie are fictional characters, she based their stories on extensive interviews with former refugees who have made their lives in Sweden since WWII.

Most of my problems with the story stemmed not from the plot, but from the writing. It often felt stilted, which could easily be written off as a translation issue. I thought the greatest strength of this book was a small, almost throwaway moment that had a huge impact for me. One of the questions that always comes up in discussions of the Holocaust is how could no one know what was happening? From our position 60 years on, knowing the horrors of the concentration camps, it seems like they would be impossible to ignore. When Stephie is trying to get the adults to cooperate and find a way to get her parents into Sweden, one person expresses their doubt that Germany would actually be shooting and incarcerating its own citizens. It's a brief moment, but perfectly illustrates the complete ignorance most of the world had regarding what the Nazis were truly capable of.

War Games also covers an aspect of WWII I had no previous knowledge about: the occupation of Greece by Italian and German forces. Petros lives in a small village, mostly insulated from the rest of the war in Europe. Italian forces have waged battles with the Greek army nearby, and the economy is in a state of freefall, but otherwise life continues as normal for Petros. Until his cousin Lambros, a member of the army, stumbles to his house, bloodied and bruised, with a dire warning: the Germans are coming. While Petros' family isn't Jewish, they do have significant American ties having lived in America for many years. Petros' father orders the family to hide or destroy anything connecting them to America, just in time for the Germans to arrive and decide that the family home will now be housing a German commander. Petros and his older brother Zola become determined to resist in any way they can, right under the enemy's nose.

This is another book based on a true story, with many of the experiences taken directly from Akila's childhood in Greece. The authors condensed many events so they all took place at the beginning of the occupation, rather than spread out over several years. There are lots of great characters here, probably because they are all based on Akila and his family. Petros and Zola's sibling rivalry is well done, so that even though there's a lot of antagonism between the two, when push comes to shove they look out for each other.

Some of the aspects of war are briefly touched upon, but are mostly ignored in favor of focusing on the more exciting resistance plot. It's mentioned a few times that they're worried about friends and neighbors reporting the family to the Germans for being American or for hiding Lambros, a known resistance member, but nothing really comes of those fears. When the commander does show up, Petros spares only a few thoughts for how nice he can be before moving on. I would have loved for the story to be a bit longer to allow for a chance to explore more of the ambiguities of the story.
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