Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Faraway Island

A Faraway Island Annika Thor, translated from the Swedish by Linda Schenck

After Kristellnacht, Stephie and her sister Nellie are one of 500 Jewish children that the Swedish government allows in to live with Swedish families. They're placed on a small island off the coast in a fishing village-- a far cry from their life in Vienna with their doctor father and former opera singer mother. Even worse, they're not put with different families. Nellie soon takes to life with Auntie Alma and her three young children, but Stephie has a harder time with Aunt Marta, who seems cold and distant. Nellie is instantly popular in school, but Stephie's only friend is from the Pentacostal church she's forced to attend with Aunt Marta and the Queen Bee has a special dislike of her. But it's only for 6 months. Then her parents will get visas and they'll all live together again, this time in America.

There are a million things to love about this novel. I liked that even though Stephie struggled, she wasn't a brat. After what she had lived through in Vienna, she knows she's lucky to be there and she's very open-minded about the cultural shift. Even when she's miserable and wants to go home, she doesn't let Aunt Marta know. I'd be interested to see how children view Marta versus adult readers. Stephie thinks she's mean and doesn't like her. As an adult reader, I think Marta's just reserved and doesn't have a clear idea of how to relate to a 12-year-old girl or understand what's important to them (I think this is most evidenced in the incident with the bathing suit and the Saint Lucia dress.) I like that a lot of the treatment that Stephie and Nellie receive, especially at the hand so of the Refugee Committee isn't great, but isn't demonized. It is what it is. This could easily have been a fictional misery memoir. It's not a rosy situation, but Thor does a good job of showing the good and the bad so it ends up somewhere between. A lot of this is due to Stephie's inner strength and drive.

I was also really intrigued by the religious issue. Stephie and Nellie are (obviously) Jewish. Marta and Alma are Pentacostal and some of the more religious people on the island. No secular music, rather strict keeping of the Sabbath. Stephie's not a huge fan, but doesn't protest. Her only real complaint is the picture of Jesus in her bedroom. But early on, when the girls go to church with their foster families, the sisters find the choir music so beautiful they start crying. Marta and Alma thinks they've found Jesus and in a giant misunderstanding of practice and language, the sisters find themselves Christian by the end of the night. I found it interesting because Marta and Alma's actions aren't painted as cruel or mean, just a bit clueless. Stephie and Nellie don't protest because it seems easier to go with it and it's not like there's a temple on the island.

Besides, it's only for 6 months.

I also adored the author's note at the end. Not only did it give background to the Holocaust, growing up Jewish in Sweden, and the history of the 500 children that Sweden took in, but Thor explains some stylistic choices as well. One is that the book is in present tense (usually present tense takes a while for me to get into, but I frankly didn't notice until I read the note) because Thor "didn't want to tell Stephie's story as historical, but as a story in the here and now. Today, too, children and young people have to escape from their countries, leaving their families behind. And even today, the care we give to refugee children who arrive alone, in Sweden and other wealth nations is not what it ought to be." Her other stylistic choice was third person narration that focuses on Stephie, because she feels that first person narration is best left to actual survivors.

This is the first in a quartet of books about Stephie and Nellie. The first two are currently available in English in the US. A Faraway Island won the Batchelder award for translation in 2010. The Lily Pond was an honor this year. I'm confident we'll see the next two books come out in the next few years. I can't wait.

Book Provided by... my local library

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