This book follows a 9-year-old girl living in Vienna with her family during the last days of WWII. Bombs are raining down on the city, food and other necessities are hard to find, and people are afraid of the approaching Russian army. This is pretty much an autobiographical account by Nöstlinger who was one of the most beloved and acclaimed authors of children’s and young adult’s books in Austria.
This is, of course, a heavy subject to tackle in a children’s book, but Nöstlinger manages to ease the seriousness a little, insofar as many situations don’t seem as dire as they are because they are seen through the girl’s eyes. Young readers won’t grasp all the subtleties and the horror because they are also beyond the narrator’s comprehension. The children in the book often say things that they have picked up from the adults, but that they clearly don’t understand, for instance, when they talk about concentration camps or the rumours about what the Russian soldiers do to women. This makes some parts rather harsh, but for adult readers more so than for young ones I think. Nöstlinger also injects some humour into the story, although it is often of the morbid variety, which is, however, not only very typical for Vienna, but probably fitting for the subject at hand.
On top of that, it is also a touching tale of a friendship that is found in the most unusual of places, as the headstrong girl befriends a Russian soldier who is an outsider in his company. Overall, there are a ton of colourful characters in this, and a slew of topics is touched upon, and, most importantly, it has a ton of heart and no easy answers for anything. There are no obvious villains or heroes, just human beings with all their faults and peculiarities who mostly just try to survive in impossible circumstances.
The book shows the impact of war on the civilian population, and especially on the children, without pulling any punches, but it still manages to avoid becoming too terrifying for young readers. It is educational and engrossing, and this girl’s story will stay with me for a long time, especially as it resembles stories I have heard from members of my own family who grew up under the same circumstances.
CBR11 Bingo: Youths!