Friday, October 8, 2010
Book Review: Black Radishes, by Susan Lynn Meyer (Delacorte Press, 2010)
Release date: November 9, 2010
This debut novel by Susan Lynn Meyer was inspired by her own father's experience as a young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France. The novel opens in March, 1940, as all Paris prepares for the possibility of war with Nazi Germany. Even the Eiffel Tower has been specially prepared--covered with a layer of dirty gray camouflage paint to disguise it from Nazi bombers. And as the Nazis get ever closer to France, conquering one country after another, anti-Semitism becomes more evident, as well. Young Gustave, too, can't help but feel the tension. The whole subject is hard for Gustave to understand--after all, his family is French, even if they are also Jewish.
While they wait for their visas for America, Gustave's parents decide to leave Paris for the countrywide, where it feels safer, but they have to leave behind Gustave's cousin Jean Paul and his best friend, Marcel. Nearly all their possessions have to be left as well, except Monkey, a stuffed animal that had been his since he was a baby, and a few favorite books, including The Three Musketeers. Gustave doesn't like his new home in Saint-Georges; the first boy his age that he meets jeers at him, calling him "Paris kid." He's not sure Saint-Georges will be safe for him and his family; but in a twist of luck, the village winds up just across the river from the Occupied Zone set up after the French surrendered to the Germans, and they wind up in slightly safer (for the Jews, in any case) Vichy France rather than Nazi-occupied France.
When Gustave meets Nicole, a Catholic girl from the village, he is finally able to make a friend--one who turns out to work for the Resistance. As conditions worsen in the Occupied Zone, Gustave's family hears news that foreign Jews in France are being rounded up and sent to prison camps, where they are dying, just because they're Jewish. Gustave's family is still waiting for the prized affidavit from their cousin in America, in order for their visas to come through. But how can they get their friends and relatives across the demarcation line, before they, too, are arrested? Can the Resistance help get them across? Gustave will have a critical part to play, as his quick thinking, and the German soldiers' fondness for black radishes, help them come up with a plot to outwit the German guards.
An Author's Note give some details about Meyer's own family history, explaining how real events from her father's life are interwoven into this novel. She explains how her father, born in 1929, the same year as Anne Frank, was one of the "lucky few," to escape Europe and survive the Holocaust. In this afterword, she points out some of the specific factors that helped her father get out, including the fact that his family was French-born, escaped first to the safer unoccupied zone, although no one knew it at the time, and also had relatives in America who could sponsor them.
This well-written and suspenseful book is well worth adding to school and public library collections, as it offers yet another perspective on the events of World War II, this time portraying the day-to-day struggles of an ordinary Jewish family in France in the early days of the war. Gustave and his friend Nicole are appealing heroes with whom young readers will identify.
Although the publisher recommends this book for ages 8 to 12, I personally would not give this book to children as young as eight unless they already have some familiarity with the Holocaust (and in general I think that's too young an age to introduce this complex and very disturbing subject). While the narrative doesn't take place in the concentration camps or contain as much violence as some books on the subject, there are many passages referring to the prison camps where the Polish Jews and then the Jews in France were being sent at the time of this novel, as Gustave himself struggles to understand what is happening to his country and his friends and family.
An interesting read-along for this novel would be the 2010 graphic novel Resistance, by Carla Jablonski, which also follows the struggles of Jewish young people and resistance workers in France during the war.
More than 70 years after the Nazis marched into Paris, the French are still struggling to come to terms with the history of the Vichy government and its collaboration with the Nazi regime. Just a few days ago, a document donated anonymously to the Holocaust Memorial in Paris provided written proof that Marechal Petain, leader of Vichy France, who some defenders have said tried to shield the Jews from the worst of the Nazi regime, was actually instrumental in tightening legal restrictions on Jews, which led two years later to their being rounded up and deported to Nazi death camps. For more details on this development, see the link below.