An absolutely wonderful book of hope and horror in early WWII
As a Canadian child born in 1940, this book had special meaning to me, not as a child participant, but as one whose father was at war while I was young, my brother even younger. In fact, whenever my brother was asked where his Daddy was he pointed to a picture on the wall.
I found this book more full of life with characters who had endured so little of family life, than many books I've read in the past. It tells the story of the internment camps, later changed to prison camps, in the south of France, of the people, mostly women, who risked their lives to bring children out of the camps to safe homes. France was under the rule of the Vichy Government at this time. Though this is a book of fiction, it is only fictional as to locations and names. The two camps specifically mentioned, Rivesaltes and Gurs are real and can be visited as they are still there and the CIMADE is a real rescue group. The rest is based on real people, real homes, real situations. The internment camps were used to enclose behind strong fences with barbed wire, 'undesirables': refugees from the Spanish Civil War which had just ended, gypsies, and foreign Jews. At this time, French Jews were still free, although many were in the 'Occupied' zone of France. The story covers 1941 and early 1942, a time before the camps became deportation camps from which the internees were sent to the death camps in Germany.
Heather and Lydia Munn have done excellent research and the writing is amazing. I was drawn in so completely I couldn't stop reading. The story begins with young teens in a rationing line-up. Many of their friends, kids who are immigrants from the 'wrong' countries, have already been placed into internment camps. Magali is fifteen and has a very strong will, but a compassionate heart. She and her friend Rosa like to meet the train and happen to note a young woman with four children get off the train and immediately be questioned about why she is in Tanieux. The woman instantly appears to be in command, intimidating the mayor, at the same time asking for directions. This is how the two girls become acquainted with Paquerette as they help her with the suitcases and children. The woman appears to be completely exhausted. They soon learn about her job through CIMADE, a Christian care agency, of rescuing children from the camps.
This story is told in the first person by Magali. She urgently feels she should be involved in bringing the children out, even knowing it is dangerous, that she is probably too young and Paquerette leaves to get more children almost as soon as she arrives. But Paquerette wants to take her to share the load, if her parents will allow it, even if only once.
We follow her story through her thoughts and actions, her horror, devastation and self-deprecation when she places her friend and personal 'Joan of Arc', Paquerette, in mortal danger when she is arrested because of an action by Magali. The characters in this book are strong, compassionate, and selfless. There are some natural character flaws as the teens grow up in such a dangerous and secretive situation wrought with hardship, but as they mature they are as strong and faithful as any adult could be.
The running theme is passion, care, fear, heroism and danger. This goes for all involved: the mothers who give up their children to save them, the secrets that must be kept hidden at all costs, the necessity to be fearful in order to perform well, and the very real danger of being caught. This is a book I would definitely encourage people of most ages to read, from perhaps even 12 to any adult. Written as a Young Adult book, I think that is too limited. Much as I thought I knew, I learned a lot more in this book.