“Genevieve’s War” by Patricia Reilly Giff throws us right into the middle of World War II, seen through the eyes of an American girl trapped on her grandmother’s farm in France. Then it backtracks to show us just how she ended up here.
At this point, Genevieve wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near France — she was supposed to be safely back home in New York. After spending the summer of 1939 with her grandmother, 13-year-old Genevieve should have left before the Germans got anywhere near her grandmother’s region of Alsace.
But an impulsive act of kindness and concern for the dour old woman led her to change her mind and stay. She had no idea just how bad the war could get, or how long it would last. And she certainly had no idea that she would be swept up in the underground resistance movement, or that she would find help — and danger — in the most unexpected places.
The wartime setting of “Genevieve’s War” is exciting and suspenseful, as we see the villagers forced to hide everything from food to valuables to refugees from the invading Germans. Yet it seems to take a while for the seriousness of it all to hit home for Genevieve. At first, she makes foolish mistakes that put lives in danger — as when she tells her friend Katrin all about the boy hiding in their attic, despite having been repeatedly warned not to let anyone know. She recklessly disregards her grandmother’s advice about whom she should trust and whom she shouldn’t.
Dealing with the consequences of her mistakes makes Genevieve finally start listening to those older and wiser than she is, and helps her start to grow up, which is a plus. Personally, though, I found it a little hard to get over her early immaturity and thoughtlessness. It seemed to me that even a 13 year old in a war zone, with Nazis literally occupying the house she lived in, would have been old enough to know better.
I also had an issue with the pacing of the book, which tends to speed up and slow down rather haphazardly. Entire seasons and major events are glossed over, and then multiple chapters are spent on one day. There are ways to do this well, but the way it was done here didn’t quite work for me.
But there are few content issues to be concerned about. Concentration camps and other horrors of the Nazi regime are mentioned, but not talked about in detail. There is no profanity, and only a small amount of innocent romance between Genevieve and a neighbor boy. As far as religion goes, there’s an occasional mention of prayer.
For many middle-schoolers, the book’s strengths will probably be enough to overcome its weaknesses. While Genevieve is sometimes a seriously flawed heroine, she is also a kind and brave one, working hard and taking great risks to help her grandmother and others in need. And as she becomes wiser and more circumspect, she also learns to look beyond the sometimes off-putting demeanor of her grandmother and others, and discern their true worth. Young readers can most likely learn a few things from her.
Image copyright Holiday House. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.