Tuesday, October 31, 2006

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that we'd started When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr. We finished it last week, and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. (There were a couple of rough spots, particularly one description of a man driven insane by the cruelty of the Nazis, but we steered around those.)

The "negative" reviews I'd gotten on the 4Real Learning forum weren't really negative. A couple of moms had reported that the book didn't seem to hold their kids' interest. The book is definitely character driven, rather than plot driven, but we tend to like that around here.

The story begins in 1933 with a young Jewish girl named Anna, and her family. Anna's father is a famous writer who perceptively believes it best for his family to flee Germany before Hitler is elected. The rest of the book follows the next few years as the family seeks refuge in Switzerland, France, and finally, England.

As the family leaves Germany by train, Anna pages through a book a friend has given her for the trip. It's about famous people, and describes their "difficult childhoods." Anna wonders if she will ever be famous, but sadly rejects the notion, as it appears to her that one must have a difficult childhood in order to be famous. Anna's own perception of what constitutes a "difficult childhood" is a lovely and recurring theme throughout the book.

My girls liked Anna immensely, and were also amused by her initially underachieving older brother, Max. They especially giggled over Max's attempts to meet the word count on his French essay assignments by padding them with long lists of foods which his characters ate. In each essay, the feasting was followed by, "And then they all burst." (Later in the book, when Anna and Max "burst into laughter," Ramona cried with delight, "I knew there would be more bursting!")

We identified with quite a lot with things that related to our homeschooling life. When Anna was struggling to learn French, her mother comforted her with this knowledge, something every teacher (and experienced student) has witnessed:

"Look," said Mama, "these things don't always happen as you expect. When I was studying music I sometimes struggled with something for weeks without getting anywhere at all -- and then suddenly, just when I felt it was quite hopeless, the whole thing became clear and I couldn't think why I hadn't seen it before. Perhaps it will be like that with your French."

And, I loved this passage about the difference between learning history through a list of dates, and learning it through "living stories." When Anna's papa asked her what she had learned about Napoleon, she rattled off an amazing list of dates and events.

"What an extraordinary way to learn about Napoleon," said Papa. "Is that all you know?"

"But it's everything!" said Anna, rather hurt, especially as she had not made a single mistake.

Papa laughed. "No, it's not everything," he said, and settling down on her bed he began to talk about Napoleon. He told the children about Napoleon's childhood in Corsica with his many brothers and sisters, about his brilliance at school and how he became an officer at fifteen and commander of the entire French army at the age of twenty-six; how he made his brothers and sisters kings and queens of the countries he conquered but could never impress his mother, an Italian peasant woman.

"C'est bien pourvu que ca dure," she would say disapprovingly at the news of every new triumph, which meant, "It's good as long as it lasts."

Then he told them how her forebodings came true, how half the French army was destroyed in the disastrous campaign against Russia, and finally of Napoleon's lonely death on the tiny island of St. Helena.

Anna and Max listened entranced.

"It's just like a film," said Max.

"Yes," said Papa thoughtfully. "Yes, it is."

(This is a bit of foreshadowing as well, but I won't give that away.)

A bit later, Anna's parents are considering sending the children to live with their grandmother for a time, while they search for housing and work in England. Anna panics, fearful about the family splitting up.

"It's just that I think we should stay together," she said. "I don't really mind where or how. I don't mind things being difficult, like not having any money, and I didn't mind about that silly concierge this morning -- just as long as we're all four together."

"But Anna," said Mama, "lots of children leave their parents for a while. Lots of English children go to boarding schools."

"I know," said Anna, "but it's different if you haven't got a home. If you haven't got a home, you've got to be with your people." She looked at her parents' stricken faces and burst out, "I know! I know we have no choice and I'm only making it more difficult. But I've never minded being a refugee before. In fact, I've loved it. I think the last two years, when we've been refugees, have been much better than if we'd stayed in Germany. But if you send us away now I'm so terribly frightened ... I'm so terribly frightened ...."

"Of what?" asked Papa.

"That I might really feel like one!" said Anna and burst into tears.

As someone who has felt like a nomad much of her life, I loved this illustration of how little "place" can mean and how much -- everything, in fact -- family means.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (and I'll leave it to your reading to find out what the title means) was a lovely book, wonderfully written and beautifully conveying the message that all kinds of obstacles can be overcome with the love and support of family.


Liz said...

Years ago we enjoyed this one as well. I wonder where our copy has gotten to. It's undoubtedly in one of the boxes of books in the attic awaiting the appearance of grandchildren. Someday I'll get to read it again. In the meantime, thanks for the memories. Isn't it cool that we like the same books!

Karen E. said...

Yes, it is. But, it doesn't surprise me. :-)