Monday, October 11, 2010

The Children's War

The Children's War by Monique Charlesworth
Knopf, 2004
Hardcover, 367 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400040094
very highly recommended

This is the story of two children caught in the midst of war.
It is 1939 and thirteen-year-old Ilse, half-Jewish, has been sent out of Germany by her Aryan mother to a place of supposed safety. Her journey takes her from the labyrinthine bazaars of Morocco to Paris, a city made hectic at the threat of Nazi invasion. At the same time in Germany, Nicolai, a boy miserably destined for the Nazi Youth movement, finds comfort in the friendship of Ilse’s mother, the nursemaid hired to take care of his young sister. Gripping and poignant, The Children’s War is a stunning novel of wartime lives, of parents and children, of adventure and self-discovery.

My Thoughts:

Set during WWII, The Children's War follows Ilse Blumenthal and Nicolai Bucherer in two parallel story lines.

Ilse Blumenthal is a thirteen year old with a Christian mother and Jewish father. Her mother sends her to Algeria to live with her uncle, but she ends up being sent to Paris to live with her estranged father when her uncle enrolls in the French Foreign Legion. Ilse longs for her mother, who was the parent who consistently loved and cared for her. Her father, Otto, is an ineffectual parent. Since they engage in little dialogue, her relationship with him is based almost entirely in her imagination and her ideal of what a father should be. Eventually Otto is arrested and Ilse has to fend for herself.

Ilse mother, Lore, is working as a nursemaid in Hamburg and agonizes over when she will see her daughter again. One of the children she is in charge of is thirteen year old Nicolai Bucherer. Nicholai is devastated by his father's absence, and feels alienated from his family, especially since his mother is emotionally distant from him. He secretly hates the Nazi's and eventually learns of Lore's daughter, who, along with Lore, occupies his thoughts.

In The Children's War, Charlesworth writes beautifully. She includes details and descriptions that set the tone and the place for each scene. Historical events are allowed to propel the story forward while the tension mounts. As the story progresses and the children mature, she gives their characters better insight into the events surrounding them, as children caught up in something they can do nothing about.

One of the themes involves the devastation that results from parental failure. Both Ilse and Nicolai long for the presence of caring, compassionate parents, but they are denied this. The war is larger than their comprehension and seemingly changes moralities and loyalties. Small weaknesses in people are amplified when the stakes are life or death.

The two parallel story lines never intersect in The Children's War. In fact, at the very end, the novel follows only Ilse. While I appreciated both story lines, in many ways Nicolai's story could have been left out of the book because it ended quite abruptly and left me feeling that it was incomplete. It was also the less compelling of the two stories.
Very Highly Recommended - I'd give it a 4.5 out of 5


Marseilles, March 1939
Ilse held her suitcase safe between her knees. There was a continuous loud crackle of announcements, which she could not understand. After an hour she moved to the corner seat beside the frosted glass window, for this gave an angled view of the Gare St. Charles. There she watched the constant flickering of single and multiple blurs against the yellow advertisement for Amer Picon. Any one of those blurs might open the door from the huge vault of the station and solidify into the person collecting her. This was distracting. Each time the door opened and it was not for her, she could not settle. opening

She watched the short figure stumping out to disappear into the haze, the last link in the human chain that had moved her to this place. She knew that the woman was supposed to see her onto the boat. Sitting on the suitcase, Ilse was level with the legs shuffling towards the ticket office. She had been wrong to mind the smell of sweat. The Red Cross woman was the sort of person whose kindness was all used up in her work, leaving nothing over for conversation, no space into which other people might intrude. She would probably never talk to the children she took from place to place. pg. 6

Ilse, sitting proudly beside him, saw how the cafes were already busy with groups of men drinking glasses of tea. Others wearing long dresses, which Willy said were called djellabas, led little donkeys to the souk, their panniers charged with merchandise. Young men in Western clothes wove in and out of the narrow streets on bicycles; one woman was modern in a short skirt and heels and stockings, though others wore long robes in bright colours. pg. 17

Though she might entertain dark thoughts about her father, Ilse could not bear for Toni to voice them. The truth was something even worse. Her father had been in and out of prison for years.... If the police picked him up, they would send him to prison or worse. Communists were banned. He was a Bolshevik and a Jew, doubly an enemy of the Reich.
The state had confiscated everything he owned. pg. 21

"Be generous, Nico, be kind," his father often said, being himself both of those without any effort. Nicolai tried to comply. His mother held the monopoly of a certain kind of knowledge, sensible seeming and reasonable, that was never to be argued with. Always right, she completely missed the essence of things. pg. 27

"...I expect you in uniform by the end of the week. This school will have one hundred per cent membership. One hundred per cent. The years of struggle are over. We are all part of the German community now. Tell your father he will be prosecuted if he does not comply." pg. 34

If Willy chose to fight, Toni said that they had to send her back. She mentioned Belgium or France. Willy said they could not do that. They had a promise to keep. Toni said a good deal about the duties of parents. She kept saying that they had to be practical. Ilse, who knew that Toni was very practical indeed, could not bear to hear any more and put her pillow over her head. pg. 57-58


Anna said...

I'm curious about why the author thought Nicholai's character was necessary but only to a point. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

I hope it's okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.

Lori L said...

Nicholai represents the children in Germany, I would imagine, but compared to other children who suffered... I'm not sure his character was necessary. As always, of course you can link to anything, Anna!