This book has two things going for it as far as I’m concerned right from the start: it’s a World War II era story about a Jewish girl and it’s a novel-in-verse. However, it wasn’t until I was about half way through the story until I really began to see it for the gem it is. In the end, though, this one ranks high on my list of middle grade historical fiction about a troubling time in history.
Odette’s Secrets is the story of Odette Meyers and her parents. They are Polish Jews living in Paris when the Nazi-collaborationist government takes control. Odette’s father joins the French army and her mother eventually joins the French Resistance. Because of their ethnicity, Odette is sent to the French countryside to live with a French Christian family. Odette and her mother are finally reunited in an even more remote French village, and through all of this Odette learns to live a life of secrets–to pose as a French Catholic and to keep her true self from her friends, all in the name of self preservation.
Maryann MacDonald does a beautiful job of writing Odette’s story poetically by exercising a great economy of words that yields perfect word pictures. This is from Odette’s days in Paris as she and her cousins visit a library forbidden to them because of the yellow stars they wear on their clothing:
Open books cover our stars like shields.
Henriette forgets she is thirsty.
The librarian, our gatekeeper,
pretends we are children like any others.
All afternoon, we read fairy tales.
In our cave of bookshelves,
we feel safe from the evil giants
marching down the street. (69)
One of the themes of Odette’s Secrets is the loss of identity. Odette is ethnically Jewish, though not religiously Jewish. However, other members of her extended family practice Judaism, so she knows a little bit about it. When she is sent away from Paris to live with a Catholic family, she is very interested in their faith. She’s not quite sure what to make of it, but she likes the comfort she derives from the beliefs and traditions. She finds roots when she didn’t know she lacked them. However, even though she takes comfort in the Catholic faith, she still doesn’t really know where she fits in–and in truth, she doesn’t fit in, not as a Jew. When some “friends” find out that she might be Jewish, they turn on her and even beat her up. The fact that her mother has no use for religion makes Odette’s life even more mixed up. Odette is confused, and rightly so. This element of Odette’s story reminds me a lot of this year’s Batchelder Award winning novel, My Family for the War (link to my review). Although the religious situation is different, the feelings of confusion are similar. Odette’s story happens to be a true one, or at least Odette’s Secrets is based on a real little girl who experienced many of the things Odette experiences in the novel. Like most realistic stories, this one doesn’t have a fairy tale ending, but that is one more thing that makes it more realistic.
Books set during the World War II era have been favorites of mine for a long time, and I don’t expect that to change. It’s a difficult time period to even think about teaching my children about, so I am really glad to have these books to help pave the way one day.
Highly Recommended. (Bloomsbury, 2013)