Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Faraway Island by Annika Thor

A Faraway Island is the first book in a four book series by Swedish author, Annika Thor, about two Austrian-Jewish sisters who are sent to live in Sweden during the Second World War. The books were written in 1996 and have recently been translated from Swedish into English. The first two books have recently been published by Random House Yearling Books, with the final two slated to follow soon, although no date has been issued as to when.

Annika Thor was born into a Jewish family living in Goteborg, Sweden sixty years ago. Thor considers that had her grandparents not immigrated from Belarus in the early 1900's, she would likely not have been born. After the Kristallnacht in November, 1938, the Jewish community in Sweden arranged for the transport of over five hundred Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to safety. Sadly, the parents of these children were never allowed to immigrate with them, and many never saw their children again in this life. The Jewish children generally ended up living in rural areas, very different from their middle class upbringing. The cultural shock, in addition to the stress of relocating alone, must have been enormously traumatic. As with many Jewish children who were placed with families of other faiths, often their cultural and religious heritage was not respected.

Thor based her books on "interviews with about a dozen of the real refugees who shared their childhoods, their letters, and their diaries, as well as on the research of Ingrid Lomfors, a Jewish historian in Sweden who explored the destinies of the five hundred refugee children."

I've only read the first book but I simply can't wait to read the entire series. Despite the setting (rural Sweden) and the time (pre-World War I), A Faraway Island evokes reminders of Anne of Green Gables. Twelve year old Stephanie (Stephie) Steiner and her seven year old sister, Nellie, are placed with two families on a small island off the coast of Sweden. The girls are split up with Nellie living with the kindly Auntie Alma and her family, while Stephie is sent to live with the crusty and stiff Auntie Marta and Uncle Evert. Auntie Marta is a dead ringer for Marilla Cuthbert while Uncle Evert is a sort of Matthew Cuthbert who relates to the young, lonely Stephie in an endearing way. He even tells Auntie Marta, "She's a fine girl. I'm glad we took her in." There's an encouraging school teacher who motivates Stephie to excel in her studies, cruel classmates who taunt Stephie, a helpful benefactor who arranges for Stephie to continue her studies onto the next level in Goteborg, and a potential romantic interest in Sven, the young man who spends the summer at Auntie Marta's house - all very similar to Anne Shirley's story in the Green Gables books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

This short novel is well written and holds the reader's interest with the ongoing troubles and tribulations of the young protagonist who must adapt to her new life in Sweden. Stephie's plight is real and it's easy to feel a great deal of empathy for her, especially since we know what will happen in the years to come.

This book will be of interest to girls, aged 8 to 12 who enjoy historical fiction. I'll review the next in the series as soon as it comes on our library bookshelves!

Book Details:
A Faraway Island by Annika Thor
Random House Children's Books 2009 translated by Linda Schenck
247 pp.

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