Thursday, November 27, 2014

The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay

This touching short novel by Canadian author Sharon McKay tells the story of two elderly brothers who risk their lives to save a little Jewish girl from certain death after the Nazis overrun Holland.

The story begins in the fall of 1942 in Amsterdam where a young mother and her five-year-old daughter are on the run from the Nazis. The little girl is warned by her mother to never tell anyone that she is Jewish. Fleeing from the home of Mrs. Dahl, whose husband had brought them to hide,  the mother is on her way to meet a stranger, a woman who will take her daughter to a safe place. To get there they must take the tram.

Two brothers, sixty-five year old Hans and sixty-three year old Lars Gorter live alone together in the house they once shared with their mamma and papa. Hans and Lars, like many older Dutch had lived through the Great War and also endured years of economic depression. In 1940, the Germans swiftly overran Holland but the Dutch people were determined to resist the Nazis and  had remained loyal to their queen who was in exile in England. When the Germans invaded, Mrs. Vos, an elderly neighbour of the Gorters fled to their home.

Hans and Lars both worked on one of Amsterdam's many trams, with Hans operating it and Lars collecting tickets from the passengers. In occupied Amsterdam, they like other tram workers, were told to report suspicious passengers to the authorities - which meant the Nazis. Both brothers decided they would do no such thing. They knew all their regular passengers on their tram; the nun with her winged hat, the elderly man and students. When the young mother and her daughter boarded the tram Hans did not recognize them.

Their tram is stopped by a Nazi soldier who boards and begins asking the passengers for their identity papers. The young mother's papers identify her as a Jew and therefore not allowed to ride the trams. As she is taken off, the German soldier begins tellign the child that she must come with them. Lars who has seen the woman's identity papers knows that she is Jewish knows that if the child goes with the Nazis she will not survive. And so he speaks up and tells the soldier that the little girl is his niece. No one believes him but to distract the soldier, Hans releases the tram brake and it lurches forward throwing the German off his feet and into the lap of the nun. He leaves the tram angry but the little girl is forgotten. The little girl's mother along with others from the tram are loaded onto an army truck and the little girl sits there alone.

At the end of the day Hans and Lars take the little girl home intending to take her to Mrs. Vos. But before they can leave the station the little girl needs to use the bathroom. The brothers are helped in this tricky situation by a well dressed woman who when she leaves wishes Beatrix a good evening. and walks off with a man dressed in the uniform of an SS officer.

When they arrived at Mrs. Vos's home, she tells them to take Beatrix to their house where she will meet them. When she comes to Hans and Lars home she begins to question Beatrix about where she is from and where she was going. Lars explains what happened on the train and how the Nazi's took Beatrix's mother away. Based on what she has seen over the past weeks, Mrs. Vos believes that Beatrix was being taken someplace safe to be hidden and after hearing more of their story, she helps the brothers brush her hair and has them feed her. Based on her appearance, Mrs. Vos is certain Beatrix is loved because despite evidence that the child is starving she is clean and her clothes well mended. Considering that the neighbours have seen Beatrix enter Hans and Lars home, Mrs. Vos visits each of them assuring their inhabitants that their personal secrets are safe with her and encouraging them to welcome Hans and Lars long lost niece. The one neighbour she feels she can trust is Mrs. Lieve van der Meer. Mrs. Vos's visit with Lieve reveals that she has lost her entire family in the bombing of Rotterdam by the Nazi's and that her husband is away doing "war work".  Mrs. Vos is right about Lieve van der Meer who offers to teach Beatrix the Catholic faith on Saturdays and for her to attend mass with them on Sundays. Beatrix must appear to be Catholic if she is to survive the war. And so begins the story of how two shy, kindly brothers who as the result of a brave act,  save the life of a little girl.

The End of the Line is about strangers and how the most unlikely of people can make a difference. McKay tackles the subject of the Holocaust and the occupation of Holland in a gentle but authentic way for younger readers, while still portraying the terror and difficulties the Jewish population faced and the suffering the Dutch people experienced. McKay portrays life in Amsterdam through the latter part of the war. At first Hans and Lars find the Nazi's annoying until they begin to see what happens to the people on who ride on their tram. By the spring of 1943, Mrs. Vos and the Gorter brothers fully comprehend the ruthlessness of the Nazis who had no qualms murdering even children. Hans and Lars decide the best way to protect Beatrix is to hide her in plain sight - on their tram. It is a bold move but one that works. Lars becomes an expert in studying the people who ride the tram and begins to know those who may need help such as the young woman disguised as an old lady. He does what he can to help those who need a chance. The winter of 1944 sees everyone starving as the Nazi's seek to punish the Dutch for refusing to run the trains. McKay describes the hunger and privation Lars and Hans, Beatrix and Mrs. Vos experienced. McKay relates all these experiences in a thoughtful manner that manages to capture the fear and uncertainty without being overly graphic.

The End of the Line is written in third person omniscient which means the readers have the opportunity to understand the story from the perspectives of all the characters. Hans and Lars who are bachelors have no idea how to care for a little girl but their fear of little girls is easily surpassed by their fear of what will happen to Beatrix should the Nazi's find her. The reader experiences Beatrix's terror when she reaches the end of the tram line and is alone with two complete strangers in the cement tram depot with it hanging lights. "She gazed up to bald, dim lights hanging from a vaulted ceiling. Her eyes widened, her lips quivered, she crossed her legs. This was a scary place." When Mrs. Vos is combing Beatrix's hair she notices how thin she is and realizes that she might be starving. She also realizes that despite being on the run, Beatrix's mother has managed to keep her child clean and her clothes neat.  "The child was clean, her hair soft. Even from this distance she could see that the child's clothes were well mended and clean too. Keeping clean on the run, surrounded by war, without a home, must have been very, very hard. 'This child is loved,' she whispered." We are as moved as Mrs. Vos is, fully understanding the tragedy that is unfolding.

This is an excellent short novel for those who are interested in the Holocaust and the experience of Dutch Jews and the Dutch people during the Second World War.  After liberation by the Canadians, McKay reveals what happened to Beatrix, her mother Judith, Lars, Hans, Mrs. Vos, Lieve van de Meer and her husband in the years following the war.  The Afterword explains Hitler's plans for Holland and its people whom he considered to be one hundred percent Aryan (with the exception of the Dutch Jews of course), the different sides in the war and also how total strangers worked together to save many children from the war.

Author Sharon E. McKay was born in Montreal, Quebec and now currently resides in Prince Edward Island. Her novels, Charlie Wilcox and Thunder Over Kandahar are two of her more popular novels. She continues the tradition of excellence in Canadian fiction for young adults and children with this latest novel.

Book Details:
The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay
Toronto: Annick Press     2014
120 pp.

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