My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was expecting a lot from this book. After all, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas had quite an impact on me and I really wanted to be moved. I had nothing to worry about.
Alfie Summerfield’s fifth birthday, July 28th 1914, is the day England declares war on Germany. Alfie feels the impact of this straight away – most of his friends don’t come to his party because their parents keep them away. Up until this point, Alfie has lead a pleasant and essentially non-eventful life. His Dad, Georgie, is the local milkman. His mum, Margie, is a regular mum who prides herself on her cooking and her neat home. His Grandmother Summerfield lives across the road and is a bit cantankerous. Down the street Alfie’s best friend, Kalena Janacek, and her father run the local shop where Alfie loves looking at the sweets. His Dad’ best friend, Joe Patience, lives a few doors away. A few days after Alfie’s birthday his Dad answers the “call-up” and before Alfie can really comprehend it, Georgie is off to train at Aldershot.
For a couple of years he family receives regular letters from Georgie, but then, inexplicably, they stop. Margie tells Alfie his dad is working on a secret mission for the government and he is not allowed to write, but as time passes Alfie believes this less and less. He thinks his father is dead and no-one is telling him. As money becomes tight, Margie has to hold down 3 jobs and Alfie decides to help out too. Kalena and Mr Janacek have been placed in an internment camp on the Isle of Wight, so Alfie sneaks into their house and “borrows” Mr Janacek’s shoeshine box. He skips school (but only on the days when they are not doing reading or history) and starts shining shoes to earn some money for his family.
There is a lot going on in this book, much of it background to really illustrate the effects of war. Joe Patience is a conscientious objector (a conchie) and is taken away to prison where he is mercilessly beaten until he nearly dies. Margie is a shadow of her former self – constantly tired and terrified of being out on the street – searching for something to make her feel like she has worth. Alfie is smart, yearning to be a grown up and know their secrets, but also enough of a child to be scared by knowing.
A series of chance encounters leads Alfie to the conclusion that his father is not dead. Rather, he is suffering from shell shock in a hospital in Ipswich. Alfie resolves to see his father, which he does via a courageous train journey all by himself. The scenes Boyne describes in the hospital, of the patients whose minds have been broken by war, are confronting, gritty and terrifying when seen through Alfie’s nine-year-old eyes. After seeing his father and hearing him shout one word (home) as he runs for the door, Alfie starts planning his own secret mission. To bring his father back to Damley Road.
This is a beautiful, heartfelt and intricately crafted novel. Boyne is adept at seeing the world though a child’s eyes, and helping us to see it too. In some ways this book is the opposite of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – in that novel, Bruno is blithely clueless about the nature of the place in which he lives. In this book, Alfie is all too aware and is proactive about it. They sort of bookend each other.
In any case, this is another must-read from John Boyne that made me smile, gasp and absolutely bawl. In other words, perfect.
Recommended for ages 10 and up.