August ‘44

Like Carlo Gébler’s previous children’s book, Caught on a Train, this is an exploration of the human impetus to tell stories. Here, the framing story is much stronger than in the earlier book and the relationship between inner and outer stories more developed.

The framing story concerns an 11-year-old Jewish child and his extended family, who are hiding in the woods to escape the Nazis. While they are there, one of the refugees tells a long story to his companions – a retelling of a Jewish folk legend set in Prague in the 16th century. It is a complex story, full of subplots, but it is mainly about persecution of Jews by Christians, and has special resonance for the people who are listening to it.

It is a little difficult to identify the novel’s audience. The compelling inner tale (which is more fluently told than the occasionally stilted outer story) is not a children’s story in the usual sense, but essentially a folktale. It certainly has plenty of gothic boy-appeal (exhumed child corpses, phials of blood, a type of Frankenstein’s monster, a skeleton in a burnt-out bedroom), but it is a complex story that might be rather demanding for the kind of reader who is likely to be engaged by the youthful protagonist of the outer story. On the other hand, some older readers who would enjoy the wonderful inner tale, which constitutes the bulk of the novel, might be put off by the much younger feel of the framing story.

It could work very well as a class novel for a good sixth or first-year class: it’s rich and meaty with plenty of historical interest, as well as being a gripping read.