Once a boy escaped from an orphanage on top of a mountain
Once - Morris Gleitzman
Member Name: brokenangel
Once - Morris Gleitzman
Date: 28/07/11, updated on 29/10/12 (61 review reads)
Advantages: engaging written style, easy and quick to read
Disadvantages: perhaps a little short for the RRP
This is one of those books that I can't really explain my interest in. Something somewhere must have attracted me because it ended up on my Amazon wish list and shortly thereafter, as a result of a birthday, on my bookshelf. The other day I was looking for something easy to read and this slim book caught my eye with its bright yellow cover and lure of a quick read.
-- The premise --
The star of David on the front cover and the reference to a Nazi on the back cover make the setting of this book very clear. Writing about the experience of the Holocaust from the perspective of a child is not a new endeavour, but Gleitzman is a popular and successful writer of Young Adult fiction so I hoped that the subject matter would be sensitively handled. After reading, I can confirm that it was. Our narrator is Felix, a young Jewish boy living in an orphanage run by nuns on the top of a mountain in Poland. It quickly becomes clear that he has been hidden there for his own safety by his loving parents, but after three years and eight months Felix seizes upon a small event as a sign of their imminent return. When they don't materialise, he finds suitable rationalisations for this and sets out to find them, leaving the relative safety of the orphanage behind him. His journey forms the story.
The blurb on the back cover is minimal but hints that he will come into contact with danger. In particular, the note that 'Once I made a Nazi with toothache laugh' suggests that Felix will not remain free. Given the general knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust, which schoolchildren in particular are likely to be familiar with thanks to their history curriculum, few readers will be anticipating a happy ending. Therefore, the dominant question of the book is not Felix's quest (finding his parents seems incredibly unlikely) but if and how he will survive.
-- Once I escaped an orphanage to find Mum and Dad --
Initially I found Felix rather endearing, but my feelings quickly turned to irritation. He was endearing because of his clearly kind nature and his lively imagination, but the same factors soon became a little irksome as they seemed to be so extreme. He has a vivid imagination and for the first part of the story he interprets everything in an extremely positive and often rather ridiculous light. When I learned that he was ten I was stunned - he seemed more like six or so, but perhaps that would be a logical outcome of his sheltered upbringing in the orphanage. Regardless, his conclusions felt extremely illogical for a child this age and, as an adult reader, I was a little frustrated by his naivety.
I imagine a younger reader would be less likely to be bothered by this and, despite my irritation, it was an effective approach in that it forces readers to engage with the story. Knowing more than Felix did, I didn't want him to leave the orphanage, and this was just the first of many such moments in the story where I felt involved and concerned for the main character. I thought that this was certainly effective in terms of engaging readers. I prefer the latter half of the story where Felix begins to learn a little more about how this world works and his reactions are still exceedingly innocent but more realistic. However, it is also very sad that he has to develop maturity so quickly and before the story ends he has to make some difficult decisions and learn some abhorrent truths. It was genuinely touching to see him forced to develop his view of who the Nazis are and what they want. Along the way Felix meets other characters and this allows Gleitzman to develop his character. This helps to make him a more fully rounded and sympathetic figure. I thought the other characters were convincingly drawn and sufficiently interesting, especially Zelda, a young orphan who likes to think she is wiser than Felix and whose catchphrase is "Don't you know anything?"
-- Once I saved a girl called Zelda from a burning house --
Despite the subject matter and events the story never felt depressing even when capture seemed inevitable. The sheer innocence of the children, despite their terrible knowledge, created a subdued sense of hope. I did feel that the story was very sad, but events happen swiftly and are narrated very simply, in a way which I thought was suitable for Felix's youth. It's not that the writer skims over the horror: it is clearly there and I felt that the writing was more powerful for not labouring the point.
The chapters are not numbered. Instead, they all begin with "Once I" to signify a development in the narrative. I felt that this approach tied the chapters together nicely, especially as Felix likes to tell stories. In fact, in some ways this is as much a novel about the power of storytelling as it is the Holocaust. I thought this helped to make the story more engaging and that it fit well with the main storyline.
The chapters are short - usually somewhere between seven to nine pages - so it is easy to find a resting place, although I found that so much was happening that I read it all in one sitting. The ending is rather open so it might not suit those who like all the ends neatly tidied away. However, I think this suited the nature of Felix and the story being told: the point is to have courage and to go on even when that's hard. Besides, there is certainly sufficient sense of closure developed that the story feels complete, even if some readers might hanker to know What Happened Next.
The whole story is a mere 150 pages so it is a very quick and easy read. As events happen so quickly and the central character is so engaging I think this would be a good story for reluctant Young Adult readers. The language is straightforward, the plot is simple to follow and there is sufficient action to keep readers interested. Also, the font in this edition is a little larger than most books so it is very easy to read. At the back of the book there is letter from the writer to the reader explaining why he wrote the story. I thought that this was a nice touch and, again, it is short and easy to follow. It encourages an empathetic approach to the story which I liked as I think that this is a very important skill to develop as a Young Adult.
-- Once I made a Nazi with toothache laugh. --
Overall then it is a straightforward but touching read that I think will appeal to a wide readership. It is a book for Young Adults rather than a crossover book but it is well worth reading and will only take quick readers a couple of hours. It feels a little slim to justify the £6.99 RRP so I would buy it as part of a buy two get the third free deal or look around the second-hand market. (I know the marketing costs etc. are all the same cost-wise regardless of the size of the book, but I can't help but feel a little reluctant to hand over £7 for anything less than 300 pages.) Recommended.
Summary: A young boy searches hopelessly for his parents in Nazi Germany while telling imaginiative stories