Review Blog

Feb 19 2009

Then by Morris Gleitzman

cover image

Puffin, 2008. 13+
Gleitzman began the story of Felix in Once. This sequel sees Felix and Zelda, the six year old girl he befriended, continue their desperate journey into Poland. Felix, aged ten is Jewish, while Zelda is the orphaned child of Nazi parents. Both are alone, starving and terrified and see and endure far more than any child should ever have to. Fortunately they are rescued by Genia, a Polish woman who lives alone on a small farm. Felix and Zelda befriend the pig and the chickens and Leopold, Genia's beloved dog. She passes the children off as relatives whose home and immediate family have been bombed. The children reach an uneasy contentment, cemented by Genia's kindness and the imaginative games they play.

However their safety is put at risk by children from the village and adults too, always on the look out for anyone harbouring Jews. There can only be one outcome - and throughout the book it is gathering momentum until it hits the reader with devastating force.

I found this story even more harrowing than The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas and The Book Thief. There is something about Gleitzman's depiction of the brave but naive children, coupled with the relentless horrors they experience, that is almost too painful to read. Gleitzman describes how Felix and Zelda stumble across a pit full of dead Jewish children. Violence and fear are ever present as the Nazis descend on the farm, taking the pig and chickens and killing the family's beloved pet dog. But it is the ending that really distressed me.

As a child I remember the profound effect that certain books had on me. Sounder by William Armstrong gave me bad dreams for weeks, and that was a walk in the park compared with Then. It is natural for adults to be protective of children, but how far should we go? One of the strengths of a book like Gleitzman's is that we can encounter Nazism vicariously, experiencing it through Felix and Zelda, but how many of us want our children to be faced with the full Nazi horror? Perhaps we should proceed with caution, ensuring that this is a book that children share with adults rather than read alone, so that we can talk about it with them and absorb some of the horrors that real children just like Felix and Zelda endured.
Claire Larson

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