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After the War - Tom Palmer

This is one of THOSE books. The ones that affect you by being more than just 'a good read' - the ones that have that personal appeal or connection that means they will stay with you long after you have read them - perhaps for ever. This is one of those books.

I've used books that reference the horrific events of the Holocaust in my class as a teacher - in a nutshell, I feel strongly that we shouldn't shy away from letting children know about such horrific events, in the hope that it prevents any such occurences in future. One way of looking at the events in a way that is accessible to the children is through the use of stories - in the past I've used all or parts of: Rose Blanche, Once, The Book Thief and Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I'll be adding this book to the list too, for a variety of reasons: the quality of the writing (Tom Palmer has rightly been receiving great credit for this work), the accessibility of the text (Barrington Stoke successful yet again), and the nature of the story it tells - sad, but true, and a message of hope that still resonates and holds importance today, in our refugee-crisis headline present times. I will definitely be using this (with due care and respect) in my Y6 class in future.

This story follows the journey of three Jewish boys (Yossi, Leo and Mordecai) AFTER the war - an interesting difference to many of the stories involving similar characters who are often escaping, running from, or present at the time of the horrors. These characters have survived the War, the camps, and the telling of this story shows what happens after they are brought to be some of the 300 'Windermere Children', rehabilitating and recovering from their experiences in The Lake District, based on true events (see Tom Palmer's website, link below, for a host of extra resources and information about the research and story behind this book).

The story is cleverly plotted and structured, starting with the boys' arrival at Carlisle in the hold of a Stirling bomber. An encounter with the pilot and the reaction his uniform causes gives a hint at the work that will need to be done to help these children move on from their experiences. Throughout the book, as the boys settle in and get used to life at Windermere, there are events that provoke a flashback, and a recall to previous traumatic events that the boys have experienced: being taken to a camp in the back of a truck; being asked to remove their clothes on arrival; being made to line up for food...the parallels between their new life and their old occur frequently, and for me, this 'dual narrative' was what made the book such a great piece of writing.

It is the knowledge that these events really took place that makes this such a powerful work in my eyes - the 'triggers' that provoke the flashbacks for Yossi brought me to tears at more than one point, as did his reflections on events, his feelings and his conflict over what to do next in his life. Some of the most powerful, for me (trying not to spoil the book!), were the flashbacks to Yossi's arrival at the camps with his family; the recall of witnessing the clearing of the ghettos and the treatment of his family and friends; the feathers from a pillow fight prompting a flashback to ash falling from the sky...horrific events, and told in a factual but not gruesome manner but without shying away from confronting their horror. I empathised with and felt for Yossi and his friends and family, and was then brought back to the present, desperate for them to be able to move on and find hope in their lives.

The book is not all doom and gloom, however. Throughout, we are reminded of the hope that things will get better for these children. The kindness shown by the locals on the Calgarth Estate towards them reminds readers of the good of humankind (I will never eat a bowl of tomato soup again without recalling a particular scene from this book). The pride taken by Yossi in being able to help a homecoming serviceman find his way to his relocated family, despite the likelihood of never again being able to rejoin his own ('This is what he had wanted so badly for himself.'), are two memorable highpoints in the story showing that kindness will always prevail. The metaphor of the flying boat and the boys' journey onwards at the end of the story is also a beautiful piece of imagery, ending on a note of hope and positivity for the three friends.

There are also some beautiful descriptions of the Lake District setting: a storm with 'thunder rolling off the mountains' recalls bombs exploding, but 'lush green hills under a bright blue sky...swallows flitting above them' show the beauty of the location they now find themselves in, in contrast with the horrors of the ghetto and the camps they came from.

I read this book whilst on holiday in The Lakes, close to where these events took place, and it made it that little bit more special for me knowing I was close to where these characters had lived out the events in the book. You don't need to be in The Lake District to read this, though - the power of the story and the feelings created by the writing will make this an emotional read wherever you choose to read it, and I'm certain you won't help but be captivated by love for these boys and hope for their futures.

A book to read, reflect upon and treasure - I am recommending this highly.

After the War was written by Tom Palmer (@tompalmerauthor on Twitter) and published by Barrington Stoke (@BarringtonStoke)

Lots of further information and resources to use alonside this book are available at:

Review by Rich Simpson (@richreadalot), August 2020

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