192pp., pbk., RRP $A19.99
Once Morris Gleitzman wrote a novel about Felix, a young Jewish boy growing up in the 1930s in a Catholic orphanage in the German mountains. But Felix had two secrets – firstly he was not an orphan, and secondly he was not Catholic. He was Jewish in a time when to be so was very dangerous. His parents, who were booksellers, told him they were leaving him there so they could find more books and they would send a message when they were coming to collect him. One day, when Felix found a whole carrot in his soup he took that as the sign and he runs away from the orphanage, not realising the danger he is putting himself in as the power of the Nazi regime sweeps the world.
Then Gleitzman wrote a sequel which begins with Felix, now 10, and his companion Zelda, 6, fleeing from a rail carriage bound for a death-camp. Taken in by Genia, a Polish farmer’s wife, they are in constant danger of being exposed and being shot.
Two more sequels followed – Now and After (described by Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Christopher Bantick as “one of the finest children’s novels written in the past 25 years”) and now we have Soon.
Felix is 13 and is still in hiding with the drunken Gabriek in the rubble and ruins of a destroyed city in Poland. While the war is over, it is no longer the Nazis who are the enemy but the Polish patriots determined to rid their country of anyone, man, woman or child, who is not of pure Polish extraction. As the Soviet Red Army prepares to dominate and control the proud Polish people, Gogol and his ilk are determined that it will not happen. ‘Poland has been crawling with vermin for centuries. Germans, Austrians, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians. Now we’re cleaning them up.”
Felix has a much simpler ambition – “Soon I hoped the Nazis would be defeated. And they were. I hoped the war would be over. And it was. I hoped we would be safe. But we aren’t.”
Eking the most meagre survival from Gabriek’s ability to mend things, Felix is determined not to lose his humanity using his most rudimentary medical skills to help those in need while trying to avoid the partisans and the gangs and all the others whose only motive and purpose is survival. Finding himself with a tiny baby to look after and unable to get help from the Allied teams trying to deal with millions of desperate and displaced people, he agrees to join Anya’s gang in exchange for food and warmth for the infant and finds himself in a whole new world of grown-up behaviour that no child should.
In this series, Gleitzman has tackled the most confronting of issues in the world’s recent history and despite the prejudice, the persecution, the racism, the horror, the violence and the death that was the reality of the times it is essential that older children know these stories for they are the stories of their grandparents and their great-grandparents and are at the root of today’s multicultural Australia. Yet Gleitzman writes in a masterful way that not only exposes the truth, affects the reader and enables them to understand but still allows them to be engrossed in the story. The fate of Felix drives them to turn the page. Every event, and there are some that parents and teachers need to know may be quite disturbing, has its place and its purpose not only in the telling of Felix’s story but also in the understanding of the world today as we continue to see conflict across the world, refugees fleeing and perhaps even being in our own classrooms.
However, it is not all gloom and doom as throughout each of the books, Felix maintains his humanity, his humour and his hope. He transforms from that young naïve little boy seeing a carrot in his soup as a sign to a compassionate, caring young man, older and wiser than his years as he begins to understand the causes and consequences of war. Ceasefires and victories are just the beginning…
Whether this is the final in this compelling series remains to be seen. Perhaps there is room for another episode entitled Perhaps…