“No one said which Christmas“.
Recommended to me by the wonderful ravenandbeez, this book will hit you right where you live. (Thanks for breaking my heart, ladies. Sheesh.)
The day Alfie Summerfield turned 5, the First World War broke out. Alfie’s dad Georgie promised him that he wouldn’t join up, but broke the promise the next day, leaving Alfie and his mum on their own.
Now Alfie is 9 and hasn’t heard from his dad for more than two years. His mum says Georgie is away on a special mission for the government, but Alfie knows it can’t be true. He knows something has happened, he just doesn’t know what. He goes to school two days a week because those are the days that have the subjects he enjoys. The rest of the week, he shines shoes for pennies at King’s Cross Station and slips the money into his mum’s purse at the end of the day, to help her out and do his share. And it is there that he happens upon some information that leads him to the truth about his dad.
Which is that he is hospitalized for PTSD (shell shock, 100 years ago). In WWI doctors, nurses and medical professionals were trying to deal with and treat a condition that had no physical symptoms, all the while battling the public and government perception that the men were merely suffering from cowardice. Georgie is one of those men.
Holy. Crap. Alfie! What a wonderful narrator for the story. Intelligent and funny and straight forward. Author John Boyne perfectly captures the innocence and bluntness of youth in the boy. Alfie sees the world his own way, and everything is black and white. There are no overtones of adult logic or greyscale, just what Alfie sees and how he perceives it, and it is SPECTACULAR.
Georgie and Margie and Joe and Mr. Janacek and Kalena and Granny Summerfield are so true to life. Margie holds a job for the first time, doing her bit for the war effort while trying to keep a roof over their heads. Joe, the conscientious objector and Georgie’s lifelong friend, who holds onto his beliefs in the face of those who call him coward and would force him to kill. Mr. Janacek is persecuted for his birthplace while Kalena dreams of being Prime Minister one day. And Granny is the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip Brit who is fiercely loyal to her own. And all are seen through Alfie’s eyes, with his perception of each. They are perfect.
Wartime London is grey and suspicious and close-knit. Families and neighbourhoods close ranks and protect one another, but are quick to turn when someone doesn’t conform.
This book is a true historical novel. Boyne does not shy away from the horror and terror and hardship of war, he just sees it through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy, doing a masterful job of portraying the culture and societal norms of the time.
It makes it no less painful to see a man break even though his son doesn’t quite understand what is broken. To tackle a topic such as this in a middle-grade novel might seem too much, but Boyne handles it gently and in terms a young reader can grasp. And while it may seem like something we don’t want our children to face, with terror and war raging around the globe many already are.
Be prepared for a punch in the heart.