My Family for the War by Anne C. Voorhoeve won this year’s Batchelder Award, which “is given to the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States.” When I first heard of it the day the ALA Youth Media Awards were announced, I knew it would likely be one I’d enjoy, so I was doubly excited when my local library already had a copy on the shelf. I read this book very quickly, and I can say with a good bit of certainty that it will make my top ten list for 2013. It’s that good.
I’ve read quite a few World War II era and Holocaust stories, especially those marked as children’s literature. This one, however, takes a different angle from any I’ve read before. It’s the story of Franziska Mangold, an eleven year old girl evacuated from Berlin as a part of the kindertransports because she is ethnically Jewish, though not religiously. When she reaches London, she is taken in by a Jewish family, the Shepards, and over the next seven or eight years, she truly becomes the daughter they never had. She takes the first name of Frances, and though she has a lot to learn as a member of an Orthodox household, she relishes her place there, especially as a younger sister to Gary and the daughter of Matthew and Amanda. One of the things I like the most about this book is how Frances’ voice grows and changes throughout the story. I noticed that early in the story, when Frances is a newcomer to England, her thoughts and even her speech and diction reminded me a lot of the voices of protagonists in other books about immigrants (mostly to the U.S. from Third World countries). As Frances grows more and more confident as an English-speaker and as a child of the Shepard household, however, her voice changes and matures. I think it shows what a skilled writer Anne C. Voorhoeve is (not to mention the talent of the writer who translated this work into Enligsh, Tammi Reichel. This is truly a mind-boggling task in my estimation!)
The most heart-rending part of the story, though, and the part that makes it seem so much like a true story, one that might’ve actually been written by Frances herself, is the internal conflict and guilt Frances feels over her “adoption” into her new family. Her real father is dead, she has no siblings, and for a long time, she feels abandoned by her mother since her mother sent her away on the kindertransport. What should a child of a decade make of that? The Shepards truly love her, and she comes to be an integral part of the family, especially as Gary goes to take his place in the war effort. Amanda is the mother who loves and comforts her, and lots of time elapses between letters from her German mother. (There is a war going on, and of course, for a woman of Jewish ancestry, life isn’t exactly easy back on the Continent during this time.) There is a huge wall between Frances and her German mother, erected by both their war-time experiences. Through all they experience, the story ends realistically, though not particularly happily. This is yet another thing that makes the story seem so real. This quote sums up Frances overwhelming emotions through much of the story very well:
Tears welled in my eyes, and I ran up the stairs to my room and threw myself on the bed. How I wished that I didn’t have pancakes to eat, a soft bed to sleep in, and nice foster parents. I wished, with all the misery out there, the struggles of Mamu and Papa, of Bekka, and Walter, who sewed zippers all day long and still wore a tattered coat, that I at least had the decency to be poor too. (129)
Of course, there’s way more to the story than just Frances and her guilt and conflict. Frances grows up in the story, so it’s a coming-of-age story. She starts out as an impressionable girl, half in love with her adopted big brother, who is the epitome of kindness and concern toward her. As Frances gets older, she becomes the one her parents depend on, and she even begins to take her place in the war effort. There’s also the question of her friendships: even in England, people are suspicious of her because she’s German. She also feels tremendous guilt because she left behind a best friend who should’ve been on the kindertransport train, too. There’s an element of very realistic romance, too, which again makes the story seem like it should be true. There are all kinds of religious questions that arise: Frances is raised as a Christian, so what does she do with this Orthodox Judaism? The story ends with most of the questions unanswered, which again, makes it seem entirely realistic.
Although the Batchelder Award is given for children’s literature, I would definitely consider this more a young adult selection. Given the nature of the story and a few rather complex references to s** and Orthodox Judaism, I would think it would take a more mature reader to really get the story. There is absolutely nothing graphic in the story, but the themes and emotions are definitely more mature than the typical juvenile pick.
This book made a huge impression on me, and I give it a Highly, Highly Recommended. It’s worth seeking out if you enjoy coming-of-age stories or stories about the complexities of war. (Dial Books, 2012)