Tag Archives: books about war

Book Review Saturday – ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’

I’ve been aware of the writer and illustrator Judith Kerr for many years, knowing her only as the creator of the wonderful classics ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ and the ‘Mog’ series. Recently I watched a TV documentary about her life and career and realised that there was far more to this author than met the eye.

Judith Kerr Image: theguardian.com

Judith Kerr
Image: theguardian.com

In this – her 90th year – one of the ways in which Ms Kerr’s life’s achievement is being celebrated is by republishing some of her books for older readers in special commemorative editions. One of these books is ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,’ the first in a collection of stories about her youth which has become known as ‘Out of the Hitler Time.’ The other books in this series are ‘The Other Way Round’ and ‘A Small Person Far Away,’ which I hope to get to as soon as possible.

I had no idea until a few weeks ago that Judith Kerr was German by birth; she had always seemed quintessentially English, to me. I never realised that she is the daughter of a prominent German-Jewish intellectual who had feared for his safety, and that of his family, because of his avowed anti-Nazi stance, and I never realised that, in 1933 – on the eve of the election which would bring Hitler to power – she and her family fled Germany for the relative safety of Switzerland, leaving all they had ever known behind. Judith Kerr went on to emigrate to England, where she has had a lengthy and successful career, first at the BBC and then as an author and illustrator, but it is in this book that we learn of how things were for her before she found the security of a safe and settled life. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is the story of a girl named Anna and her brother Max, who – along with their writer father and loving mother – are forced to leave Germany in 1933 because they are Jewish.

It is Judith Kerr’s own story, to a large extent. How she manages to tell it in such a matter-of-fact, clear-eyed way, then, is beyond me.

The 2013 Commemorative Edition of the book. Image: bookmavenmary.blogspot.com

The 2013 Commemorative Edition of the book.
Image: bookmavenmary.blogspot.com

Judith Kerr described in the documentary how her own son, as a child, watched the film ‘The Sound of Music’ and felt satisfied that he now knew exactly how things had been for his mother as a girl. The highly unrealistic, melodramatic escape from the Nazis as portrayed in the film pleased the young boy, but it did not please his mother. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is her attempt to show her son how it felt to be German and Jewish in the 1930s, and how it really was to see your father bent double with worry and stress, and your mother working hard to keep the family together, and you – as a girl of nine, turning ten – struggling to understand why all this was happening.

For a reader like me, who cut her teeth on ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ and ‘The Silver Sword,’ this book is not what I expected. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is primarily a book about a family, and its efforts to stay safe and united in the face of great evil. We are introduced to Anna as she walks home from school one snowy day with her friend Elsbeth, and we meet her family – her genial, intelligent and gentle father, her ladylike and refined mother, her boisterous and fun-loving brother – until, one day, Anna wakes to find that her father has disappeared. He has fled to Zürich, where he wishes to prepare a new life for his family, and within a few weeks the others must follow him. They must also make haste, because all over Germany Jews are beginning to feel the iron hand of oppression – people are having their passports confiscated, and encroachments into their personal freedom are just beginning. Their family friend, ‘Onkel’ Julius, tells Anna’s father that he is being ridiculous – ‘this will all blow over,’ he feels. Anna’s father is over-reacting, he is sure.

Nevertheless, the family leaves with as much speed as they can muster without drawing undue attention to themselves. Within a fortnight, Anna’s mother has arranged their departure, and the removal of all their belongings, and they are making ready to flee. Anna’s father is quite famous, as a writer and journalist, and her life in Berlin is comfortable. The disappearance of such a high-profile figure as her father is hard to conceal, but they manage it, explaining his absence by saying that he is ill with ‘flu; then, finally, they take a fraught, tense train journey toward the Swiss border. Anna and her brother are delighted with the cat belonging to the lady who shares their carriage, and are happy to amuse themselves by looking out the windows at the new world zooming by – but Anna’s mother’s white-knuckled grip on her handbag, and her pinched face, tell the reader all they need to know about how much fear she was in. The story follows the family as they move from hotel to boarding house, to cheap rented flat, as their money begins to dwindle. They lose their household staff, and Anna’s mother must learn how to do tasks she has never before needed to perform in order to keep the children clothed and fed. Anna’s father cannot find well-paying work – nobody is willing to employ a writer with his profile, or at least not for the money he could earn in Berlin. They leave Switzerland for Paris, and then finally they go to London.

This is not a book about the war, as such. There are no moments of violence here, and no descriptions of atrocity. This makes the poignant scenes – the loss of childhood innocence, the leaving behind of beloved toys, the separation from friends and family, the death of a beloved person – all the more powerful. This is a story being told by a ten-year-old girl, trying to explain to us how it felt to live in these troubled times, and how little sense it all made. A powerful scene early in the book shows Max and Anna happily playing with two German children – that is, until the mother of their new playmates comes outside and catches them. “‘Siegfried!’ she called shrilly. ‘Gudrun! I told you you were not to play with these children!'” (p. 70); the German mother then removes her children from Anna and Max’s company and refuses to let them play together any more. To the children, this seems ridiculous, unfair and stupid – and to the reader, seeing nothing more than the names given to the young Germans (both of them taken from Germanic mythology and folklore), it is clear what sort of people these Germans are. However, we share one thing with our childish narrator – the separation of these children, two of them Jewish and two Aryan, but all German – is ridiculous, unfair and stupid. It is a brilliant point, cleverly and gently made.

‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is a slow, seemingly slight, and simply-written book. It is not a war diary, and it is not a book filled with explosions and battles. It is the tale of one family remaining steady in choppy waters, and a powerfully moving testament to the ways in which war rips apart the fabric of normal life, severing families and separating loved ones. It is a piece of lace covering a dark black hole.

It is deservedly a classic.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Heroic’

Sometimes, it’s the books you buy on a whim that can turn out to be the most meaningful, and the ones you’ll treasure for years. ‘Heroic’, by Phil Earle, is one of those books for me.

Image: thefemalebookworm.com

Image: thefemalebookworm.com

It wasn’t actually me who chose this one – it was my husband. We were browsing through the children’s and YA shelves in a large bookshop a few weeks ago, and he handed it to me. ‘This looks interesting,’ he said. ‘I might actually read this myself.’

Well. That got my attention. My husband, read fiction? This must be some book!

I added it to my pile of to-be-purchased titles without really looking at it; I checked out the cover image, saw that it was a Penguin title (it’s great to have such trust in a publisher!) and was quite happy to fork over the money for it. Then, when it arrived back home with us, it took me a little while to get around to reading it; when I did, though, I wondered what had taken me so long.

‘Heroic’ is the story of Sonny McGann, primarily, though his brother Jammy is the other main narrative voice in the book. We read three or four chapters in Sonny’s voice, and then three or four in Jammy’s, and so on – the story unfolds through both their perspectives. Sonny and Jammy have grown up on the Ghost, a high-rise housing estate somewhere in London, the focal point (and only un-graffittied part) of which is a large statue of the soldiers at the centre of the housing units. This outsize memorial was raised to commemorate the men of the area who’ve given their lives, down through the years, in the service of the Army, and it’s often mentioned – as a meeting point, as a reference point, as a grounding image, and, finally, as an emotional focus – throughout the story. Life on the Ghost is not easy – fathers are absent or abusive, mothers are worked to exhaustion, unemployment among the young is rife, drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. In order to escape his life, and earn some money to help his mother keep the family together, Jammy enlists in the Army, and is deployed to Afghanistan along with his best friend and neighbour, Tommo.

Sonny is left to face the cauldron that is the Ghost. His sections of the story tell us of his struggles to keep away from crime and drug abuse, his love for Cam (the sister of Tommo), and his everyday life, full to the brim of frustration and rage. He wants to help his mother by trying to get some sort of job, but she wants him to stay at school; they both know, in any case, that being labelled as ‘a kid from the Ghost’ will make him unemployable, so their arguments are, in some ways, moot. His future looks grim, and his life is hard – it’s leavened only by the presence of the beautiful, gentle and compassionate Cam, whom he loves deeply. However, Cam – as a sister of one of ‘the gang’ – is supposed to be out of bounds; her relationship with Sonny must therefore be kept secret, and it is a huge source of stress for them both. Sonny’s friends are struggling as much, or more, than he is, particularly the enigmatic and troubled Hitch, and their efforts to carve out a living for themselves is painfully described.

Interspersed with this brutal vision of life, we read about Jammy’s experiences in Afghanistan. He does his best to take his friend Tommo under his wing, trying to keep him safe and sane amid the dust and terror, and he struggles with the reasoning behind their presence in Afghanistan to begin with. He learns the hard way about the drawbacks of trying to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of local people, the brutality both of the war and of the regime they are, allegedly, there to fight, and how risky it is to become close to the people you’re trying to protect. A scene in the middle of the book involving Jammy and an Afghani child almost literally stole my heart out of my chest and broke it; I had to close the book, put it aside, and weep for a good ten minutes. It is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever read, made even more harrowing by the fact that similar events happen every day in reality. Eventually, Jammy returns from Afghanistan, but what he’s been through, and what he’s seen, mean that the man who comes back to the Ghost is not the same man who left. Jammy’s struggles to reintegrate, to slot back into life with his family and community, are unashamedly examined. The book particularly takes us into the heart of his relationship with Sonny, and how the brothers seem to have lost something precious that once bonded them to one another.

Cam, Sonny’s girlfriend, becomes a pivotal character in trying to heal the brothers’ relationship despite the fact that she is dealing with her own unimaginable loss. The boys’ mother, driven to distraction by the life she is leading and the future that faces her sons, is a strong and loving figure, but it takes her love and Cam’s together to have any impact on Jammy and Sonny. They have to realise how much they share and how deep are the ties that bind them before they can reforge their relationship, but their attempts to do this are almost too much for either of them to take.

‘Heroic’ pulls no punches. It is a visceral novel, full of pain and anger; the characters’ rage spills forth from the pages and their tightly-bounded lives struggle to break free from between the lines of text. I didn’t just read this book – I lived it, I breathed it, I felt the strictures of the Ghost and the front-line both. I willed the characters on, frustrated by Sonny’s immaturity and pigheadedness as much as by Jammy’s inability to admit he needed help, horrified by Hitch’s struggle with heroin and Cam’s experiences at the hands of her father, and deeply moved by the love between them all, and their willingness to do whatever it took to save one another from destruction. Having said all this, I don’t mean to imply that ‘Heroic’ is a bleak book – it isn’t, really. The desperation and pain of the characters’ lives is always counterpointed with their love for, and devotion to, one another. You could almost say this is a book about brotherhood – not just the blood ties that bind Sonny and Jammy, and which end up, in a way, being weaker than the ties between Sonny and his friends, and Jammy and his comrades – but the brotherhood, or the family links, that bind all of us together, wherever we live or whatever we face in life.

In short, this book is a marvel. I’m so pleased my husband spotted it, and that I bought it, because it’s probably not the sort of book I’d have picked up for myself. Now, I know better. I’ll be looking out for the rest of Phil Earle’s books, and recommending them highly to everyone I come across.

Happy Saturday, y’all. Get reading!