Australian author Morris Gleitzman is known for wacky, laugh-out-loud offerings such as the Toad Rage series, recounting the misadventures of Limpy, an Australian cane toad who travels the continent to discover why human drivers deliberately squash his family members. In his luminous Holocaust trilogy, made up of the books Once, Then, and Now, Gleitzman has tempered but not totally abandoned his sense of humor, in taking on a far more serious form of discrimination: the systematic persecution and extermination of Jews during World War II.
The first two volumes, Once and Then, together form a moving portrayal of a resilient young soul navigating the treacheries of that dreadful era. When Felix is eight, his parents, owners of the Jewish bookshop in a small Polish village, take him to a Catholic orphanage with the parting assurance, “We’ll never forget you.” The youngster waits impatiently (for “three years and eight months,” he tells us repeatedly) for their imagined though un-promised return.
Felix has the abundant optimism of a child raised in a secure family and the vivid imagination of one steeped in books from infancy. His crisp, straightforward narration is rich with illuminating detail, and quietly exudes his warm character and his indefatigable spirit. The simple, engaging style and clever narrative structure perfectly fit the inventive young protagonist.
Felix eventually concludes it is his duty to look for his parents. With the earnest sense of obligation and expectation of success characteristic of preadolescence, he flees the orphanage, praying for safety to “God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope, and Adolf Hitler” (because the obtuse Fr. Ludwik has told him, “Adolf Hitler keeps us safe, too”).
Nothing could have prepared Felix for the riveting series of horrors he encounters (Gleitzman has drawn from the true stories of young war victims whose writings survived them). Yet Felix describes his tragedy-ridden journey without a trace of self-pity, seldom allowing himself to think badly of anyone, not so much out of stubborn denial of reality as out of previously unchallenged innocence. In fact, Felix has a gift for conceiving innocuous explanations for harsh realities.
Younger readers unaware of the historical context will find Felix’s experiences as initially baffling as he does. For those familiar with the tragic setting, Felix’s creative conjectures are at once humorously ironic and ineffably sad. Both groups of readers will be relieved, if further saddened, when Felix’s innocuous explanations crumble under the weight of reality. He gradually realizes that Hitler is keeping only some people “safe,” and that he is not one of them.
Decent, giving people are interspersed among the cruel, selfish ones. While soldiers herd Jews into ghettos or onto trucks bound for concentration camps, a dentist named Barney harbors their children in his office basement. While Nazi youth practice military drills in a village square, local widow Genia passes off their Jewish counterparts as her distant relatives. Good and evil, fortune and misfortune—Felix meets with ample instances of each. The result is a tribute both to the horrors endured and sacrifices made by many innocents, young and old.
Like Once and Then, the trilogy’s third volume, Now, tackles themes of innocence, friendship, and protection in the face of abandonment, persecution, and danger. This time, however, the setting is modern-day Australia, where the story’s narrator, Zelda, is the victim of severe bullying at her new school. Zelda has just moved to a small town in the bush to stay with her 80-year-old grandfather, a retired surgeon, while her parents are in Africa performing medical aid work.
Zelda knows she is named for one of her grandfather’s young war-time companions. The first Zelda, her parents have explained, courageously hid with Felix in forests, barns, and ditches after the German army invaded Poland. Her grandfather still treasures a locket that belonged to her. The second Zelda aches to live up to the examples set by her courageous namesake, her selfless grandfather, and her charitable parents.
Like her grandfather’s childhood friend, our narrator is outspoken, bristling when challenged unjustly. Despite her bluntness, however, she has Felix’s intense concern for others. She is more reflective than her grandfather was at her age, more self-conscious, more fretful about her own feelings and failings.
At first, the story alternates between the two halves of Zelda’s new life: the security of her close relationship with her grandfather, and the cruel treatment she receives at the hands of some older girls at school. The plot accelerates when a bushfire sweeps across the land like an invading army. The unfolding events reveal more about Felix than Zelda fully understands: emotional wounds he still harbors from the war, the responsibility he yet feels for losses he couldn’t prevent, and the strength his experiences nevertheless built into his character. At the same time, we see Zelda , like her grandfather, bringing unique strengths to bear on the tragic circumstances and relationships within her limited sphere.
Felix, Barney, Genia, Zelda—all demonstrate the human capacity to navigate tragic times through sacrificial service to others. Though necessarily flawed and not always successful, such selflessness can be transformative for both giver and receiver.
Once, Then, and Now all exemplify the capacity of fiction to illuminate truth, even difficult truth, with grace, dignity, and hope. This, too, can be transformative, and is one of the reasons fiction is so important.
Though the trilogy is clearly aimed at juniors, and its tone is remarkably upbeat for the subject matter, the stories forthrightly and frankly treat children’s encounters with brazen cruelty, brutal deaths, and (implied) euthanasia. Parents are advised to read these books with their more sensitive children, or to save them for when they are a bit older. The books should be read in order.
As this review was in its final stages, Gleitzman revealed that he has begun work on a fourth novel about Felix. No publication date has been announced, but it certainly will be a highly anticipated volume for Gleitzman’s many fans. Expect a Youth Reads review when the book becomes available.
Image copyright Henry Holt and Co. Review copies are from the reviewer’s personal collection and the public library.
Jay Sappington has taught English and music, written and directed several youth musicals, and is co-authoring a fantasy novel for young readers. He is passionate about encouraging others, especially young people to explore the arts. He lives near Washington, D.C.
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