Fuse #8

Friday, October 06, 2006

Review of the Day: Escaping Into the Night

Writing a review of a children’s Holocaust book is surprisingly difficult. For one thing, you’re dealing with a genre that’s inherently dark. If you’re the author of a Holocaust title, how do you balance an evil time period with enough hope to keep child readers interested, while still staying true to the events in all their horror? You do the best you can and then some dim bulb reviewer comes along and projects their own interpretation of past events they have no firsthand knowledge of onto your work. So as a reviewer of children’s books I have to gauge whether or not a given title concerning the Jewish people during WWII is respectful enough, honest enough, and kid-friendly enough to recommend. This is probably why I don’t read that many Holocaust books in general. Now earlier this year I found myself utterly charmed by Jennifer Roy’s remarkable, “Yellow Star”, and the pump (as it were) was primed. Good thing too. “Escaping Into the Night” is a gritty, no holds barred account of the Jewish encampments of western Belorussia and the guerrilla fighting that went on there. It’s also a coming of age tale involving a girl, her transformation from child to woman, and how she comes to redefine what “family” means.

Halina Rudowski’s mother always said she worried too much. Even though mother and child were sent to live in a Polish ghetto at the start of WWII, Mrs. Rudowski refuses to give up the niceties of life. Then she’s unceremoniously gunned down after work one day, leaving her only child alone in a dangerous world. Aided by people within the ghetto, Halina, her friend Batya, and a boy named Reuven escape to the Bielski encampment hidden deep in the Belorussia forests. Life in the camps is never easy and Halina soon finds that it can be just as dangerous to be “safe” as it is to live a life in a Nazi run ghetto. Soon she and Batya are volunteering for difficult missions and are risking their lives for the good of the whole. Through a variety of trials and tribulations, Halina learns to care for those nearest to her, and is able to accept that all a person can ever be is brave as they have to be, “and not a bit more.”

Character and plot move at a satisfying clip in this smart little novel. Though we meet a great many people, Friedman is able to adeptly keep all their names clear and concise enough that you are able to remember who they are from page to page. More importantly, they ring true. Not every Jewish person is a saint in this book and they don’t suffer in saintly silence when they are hurt. These are real people with real concerns, and just because some madman wants to exterminate them, that doesn’t suddenly make them two-dimensional good guys. There is depth to each person in this book. As for the plot, it knows when to speed up and when to slow down. A reader will find the book exciting, but not so breathtaking that it takes away from any of the action. And though a bibliography would have been especially nice for this too little known aspect of WWII, there is at least some further information about Bielski and his encampments in the Afterword.

Friedman’s story also did a couple things I’d not seen before in a book for kids. First of all, Halina is not a slim delicate little flower. She’s a well-muscled girl who takes after her father’s Polish peasant side of the family. Though her mother desired “civilization” and the hum of urban life, in the camps Halina discovers the joys of living in the wild. Such a joy would be frowned upon by those sophisticates that regard a love of nature with poor farm folk, but the love Halina grows for this newfound life offers the book the much needed depth it needs to become more than just another Holocaust story.

Is the book too dark for child readers, though? Well, it has its moments. Halina’s friend Batya is strangled before her eyes and tortured when Halina escapes without her (though you do not SEE the torture firsthand). The girls are forced to eat bacon though it goes against their beliefs. Beloved characters die, kill, and go through a variety of wrenching moments. What you have to keep in mind, though, is that at least Ms. Friedman is being honest about how awful it was to live under the constant threat of annihilation at the hands of the Nazis. It would be far far worse if Ms. Friedman chose to cushion these horrors in a falsely cheery light. There is honesty and there is sadism, and I think the author does a good job of leaning more one way than another. This is not to say, however, that all kids will be entirely ready to read a book of this nature. “Yellow Star” and “Number the Stars” have their place as Holocaust fiction for younger kids. “Escaping Into the Night”, in contrast, is definitely for the older set.

Usually when a book takes place during a harrowing moment in history it will close with that moment in question ending. You read a Holocaust novel and you naturally assume that at the end of the book the war in Europe will be over and the healing will begin. To Ms. Friedman’s credit she decided not to go the easy route with this puppy. So as not to spoil it for you I won’t say how the story ends, per say. Just that somehow or other Ms. Friedman is able to create a hopeful ending in the midst of a still horrible situation. All in all, “Escaping Into the Night” is a good and well-written book, but not a pleasurable read. It feels good for you, but for those kids who, like myself, are not big historical fiction buffs, one read is all it takes. A remarkable title certainly worth remembering, but not for the chuckleheads amongst us.

Notes On the Cover: For the most part, this is pretty good. Great sky. Nice use of field and trees (I can make out every single blade of dead grass, it’s so crisp). And then there’s a girl running who I assume must be Halina. I say “assume” since we are repeatedly told that in the story that she’s a strong, relatively large girl of “peasant stock”. The girl on the cover? She looks like she’d blow away if you sneezed in her general direction. Publishers do NOT like the idea of putting girls on their covers if those girls aren’t stick thin wisps (“Kiki Strike” did the same) but maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe the photographer didn’t read the book, or the photo we see here is a stock image plucked carelessly from a pack. Whatever the case, I’m getting seriously concerned for Simon & Schuster. First “Homefront” and now this? We can do better.

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