Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Big War: A Faraway Island by Annika Thor

The farther out along the island road they get, the fewer and further between the houses are. The road twists and turns among bare gray rocks.

Aunt Marta pedals slowly up a long hill and stops at the crest. In front of them is the endless, leaden-gray ocean. In the distance, just barely visible, there's the brown silhouette of a sail against the backdrop of sea and sky. After that there's nothing but the horizon, a thin ribbon of light at the far edge.

The end of the world, Stephie thinks. This must be the end of the world.
As Hitler's army invades Austria, Stephanie and little sister Nellie Steiner are sent by their parents from Vienna along with 500 other Jewish children to a promised refuge in Sweden. Nellie settles in and learns Swedish quickly with the lively young children of "Auntie Alma" and her family, but Stephie is placed with a older and childless couple, the distant "Aunt Marta" and the seldom seen "Uncle Evert," a fisherman. Their parents have promised to come for them and take them to American as soon as they get visas, but the promised short stay in Sweden turns into months.

Nellie adapts happily in her warm, easy-going family, but Stephie struggles to relate to the silent and undemonstrative Marta as she tries to make the best of life on the small coastal island. Always a gifted student, she forces herself to learn Swedish as fast as possible and to excel at her studies, made easier by the fact that she finds herself repeating sixth grade, the final grade of schooling offered in the small village school.

Even on a faraway island in the Baltic Sea, Stephie encounters ill will against Jews, and she is constantly teased and tormented by a clique of girls led by their hateful ringleader Sylvia. Still, most people are polite and some are kind, and Stephanie tries to please by fitting into the community as best she can, earning the affection of the friendly Evert, the admiration of her teacher, and eventually the respect of Aunt Marta.

But still underlying prejudice bursts forth when Ragnor, a summer tourist, reveals what lies beneath the surface even there:

"We know why you're here," the boy says. "You get out of Germany with your money and your jewels and think you can just buy up our country like you were trying to do in Germany. But you'll never get away with it. The Germans will be here, too,...and they'll deal with people like you--you filthy Jew-kid."

Then, surprisingly, Stephie sees her stern foster mother comes to her defense, confronting the boy's family bravely, and Stephanie knows that in her own way Marta has come to love her:

"No one," says Aunt Marta, "no one is going to come along and say such things to my little girl."

My little girl, Aunt Marta had said. MY little girl! As if Stephie were her very own child.

Long popular in Sweden, Annika Thor's partly autobiographical A Faraway Island, the first of four books and the subject of a long-running television series, has just been published in the U. S. in a skilled translation by Linda Schenck. Beautifully and sensitively written, this fine historical novel joins other books such as Lois Lowry's Newbery Award-winning Number the Stars Norma Fox Mazer's Good Night, Maman (Harper Trophy Books), Judith Kerr's When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Marilyn Sachs' A Pocket Full of Seeds, and Johanna Reiss' The Upstairs Room (Trophy Newbery), in telling the story of Jewish children during World War II in Europe. It is hoped that the rest of the series will soon be published here as well.

On January 18 A Faraway Island was awarded the prestigious 2010 American Library Association's Mildred L. Batchelder Award for an outstanding children's book translated from a foreign language and subsequently published in the United States.

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