Here are a few signs that you have found an extraordinary historical fiction novel for children:
- You read it in one sitting, staying up until 1:30 in the morning, because you simply couldn't leave the main character until you knew how things would turn out.
- It made you cry.
- You read the author's historical note at the end with riveted attention.
- After you closed the book, you couldn't rid yourself of the notion the characters were real, even though you knew better.
That's how it was for me with Someone Named Eva, by Joan M. Wolf. The story begins in Lidice, Czechoslovakia in May of 1942, as Milada turns eleven. Despite the Nazi occupation of Germany and ensuing rationing, Milada's life is happy. She lives with her parents, grandmother, older brother, and baby sister, and has a cherished best friend. They aren't Jewish, and feel relatively safe.
A month later, however, everything changes. The Nazis burst into Milada's home one night, and drag everyone away. Her father and brother are hauled off to "work camp", while the women and younger children are herded into a local school. They endure several tension-filled days before Milada is ripped away from her family and taken to a school for girls in Puschkau, Poland. She learns that, because she is Aryan-looking (down to having the right shaped nose), she is to be "Germanized", so that she can eventually marry a German man, and bear healthy blond German babies.
Milada is well fed and clothed, but expected to give up everything from her former life, right down to her name and her language. They call her Eva, and teach her how to be a good German. The remainder of the book is about Milada's struggle to hold on to who she really is, and what is right, in the face of relentless Nazi indoctrination. Here is the passage after she first learns of her new name:
"I nodded, as a sickening feeling settled into my stomach. No longer would I be known as Milada, fastest runner in the class, stargazer, Jaroslav's little sister. No longer would I hear the lyrical sound of my own language or feel it roll across my tongue." (Page 50)
As you can see, Milada is a well-rounded character, with hopes and dreams, and doubts. One aspect that makes this book particularly moving is that fact that, given any knowledge of World War II, the reader knows more than Milada does. While Milada is still holding out hope that her family will come for her, the reader knows that this is unlikely. When she is transferred to a new location near a "prison camp", and notices an unpleasant smell in the air, the reader knows what that smell is. For me, it was this foreboding knowledge, juxtaposed against Milada's own innocence, that made the book impossible to put down. Here's a passage from mid-way through the book:
"He was nothing like my own papa, who was short and trim with dark, gentle eyes that folded into small wrinkles when he laughed. There was nothing mysterious or hidden about my papa. He was who he was: strict but fair and kind to everyone. And someday, I knew, my papa would come for me." (Page 114)
How could I leave her like that? Not knowing?
Someone Named Eva uses straightforward language, with attention to specific, sensory details: the smell of straw, before and after people sleep on it; the silky texture of a nightgown; the sharp edges of a hidden piece of jewelry; the light flashing on a glass rosary. This writing style makes the book accessible to kids. The first person narration lends further immediacy. The story isn't relentlessly sad, either. Milada has moments of happiness throughout.
The Author's Note explains the background behind the (true) events that took place in Lidice in 1942, as well as the Lebensborn program (in which captured, Aryan looking children were "repatriated" as German children). Although there are many other children's books available about World War II, this one offers a unique look at the Lebensborn program. It's a fascinating (albeit painful) subject for a children's book, raising many questions for discussion. What would it have been like to be a child like Milada? How do you balance the need to be obedient to survive against doing things that you feel are wrong? What would it have been like for even younger children, who couldn't remember their own families? What happened to those children at the end of the war?
I highly recommend this book for middle school children and above. I think that elementary school kids could manage it, reading-wise, but that the ethical conundrums might be a bit of a reach. I do have concerns that the cover will make the book off-putting to teens, especially to boys. It's a painting of Milada, in her Nazi school outfit, with a German flag in the background, and sadness in her blue eyes. Although in many ways perfect for the story (you find yourself wanting to make Milada smile), the cover makes the book look old-fashioned and for audience. Still, I think it would make an excellent companion book for a history unit on World War II, and a top recommendation to any fan of historical novels. As for me, I'll always think of Milada as real, even if she is technically fictional. And I'll be sorry about what was done to Milada and her family.
Publication Date: July 2007
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: A Patchwork of Books, Kate's Book Blog, Shelf Elf, Krystel's Book Blog, Semicolon, Fuse #8. This title is a 2007 Cybils nominee in Middle Grade Fiction, and made MotherReader's MegaList of Best Books of 2007 (so far) in September.
(Updated to add:) Interviews: Miss Erin's interview with Joan M. Wolf is not to be missed.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.