Friday, November 7, 2014

A Faraway Island by Annika Thor, 2009

Synopsis (from Amazon)

It's the summer of 1939. Two Jewish sisters from Vienna—12-year-old Stephie Steiner and seven-year-old Nellie—are sent to Sweden to escape the Nazis. They expect to stay there six months, until their parents can flee to Amsterdam; then all four will go to America. But as the world war intensifies, the girls remain, each with her own host family, on a rugged island off the western coast of Sweden.
Nellie quickly settles in to her new surroundings. Not so for Stephie, who finds it hard to adapt; she feels stranded at the end of the world, with a foster mother who's as unforgiving as the island itself. It's no wonder Stephie doesn't let on that the most popular girl at school becomes her bitter enemy, or that she endures the wounding slights of certain villagers. Her main worry, though, is her parents—and whether she will ever see them again.

I just finished A Faraway Island, and I really liked it. It's not going on my top ten list of 
favorites, but it was really good. I've already begun the sequel, but I'll review A Faraway Island once I've finished that.

A few days later:
Okay, I have now finished the sequel (The Lily Pond) and am bemoaning the fact that the third and fourth books of the series have not been translated into English yet. You see, they were originally written in Swedish!

The book is written in third person present tense, from the point of view of the fictional twelve-year-old Stephie. Stephie and her sister Nellie are two of only five hundred Austrian children who were offered asylum by the Swedish, and I frankly hadn't known anything about the Swedish point of view of World War II. It was very interesting for me to read about the lives of the Swedish during WWII, in part because I am actually half Swedish.

The characterization in the book was good, but not to the point of drawing attention away from the story. Stephie is essentially supposed to be a stand-in for the reader - or at least, that's what she was for me. When I was reading this book I forgot that I was reading about someone else, and became Stephie. I felt perfect empathy with her, despite the fact that I've never been to Austria, World War II has been over for decades, and my real parents were literally in the same house as me for most of the duration of my reading. That didn't matter, because I was sucked in and I felt Stephie's pain. And that's why I enjoyed this book so much.

The secondary characters are still good, but not perfect. My favorite is probably Auntie Marta (with a mark over the "a"), because she's so much deeper than she seems at first (and because I have a thing for tough-love characters). Nellie was shallow and callous, and didn't care at all that she was losing her very heritage as she dropped her native German tongue for the more popular Swedish language. Then again, she was seven years old so what can you expect? She acted her age, even though I might not like it. There's some pretty interesting side threads with two of Stephie's school friends, neither of which I really loved. One of the girls she makes friends with is the illegitimate daughter of a man who died at sea before he married his fiance. She and her mother are sort of the scum of the town, but Stephie doesn't care. It's a nice story line, it just felt kind of dry and cliche.

The other friend Stephie makes at school is more on the in crowd. She's a bit of a goody-goody, and there's a scene later in the book she says that Stephie needs to do something or otherwise Jesus will be mad at her. Forget the fact that I don't agree with the Pentecostal religion that the people on the island follow (seriously, who is this girl to say whether Jesus will be mad at Stephie?!), I just think that's so obnoxious. Stephie. a Jew who was baptized before she even spoke English, gets very mad at her friend and tells her that Jesus doesn't exist. Of course she regrets that later, and I do believe that Jesus exists, but I'm still on her side in that scene.

As a whole, this is a great WWII book. You get to see a lot of the struggles that children who were separated from their families went through, and I never felt like it was fake. The sequel is also well-written, but I didn't find the subject matter as a whole (Stephie delves a bit more into the tween crush phase than I really enjoy reading about) as compelling as this book.

Are you interested in WWII books? Post your favorites in the comments, or ask for recommendations!

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