CM . . .
. Volume X Number 8. . . . December 12, 2003
Hero is the title of Martha Attema's new book, and this short, one-word title immediately sets a reviewer wondering. If the story's set during World War II, heroes abound. Who is the hero? Is the horse named Hero really the hero? Are there other heroes, perhaps? Are multiple meanings to be gleaned? The target audience suggests something simpler - the book is "An Orca Young Reader," intended for the younger set, ages 7-10, a range often and unfairly deemed incapable of appreciating multiple meanings. A full reading of the book yields the conclusion that readers may read as much or as little into the title as they choose.
Hero could simply be the name of a horse, the prized black stallion hunted, like Izaak, by the Germans (albeit for different reasons) and who, it's implied, plays a major role in Izaak's adjustment to his new life. Izaak, himself, could be the hero - he is, after all, the one on the run, the one suffering uncertainty and constant fear despite kind caregivers. If truth be told, though, Izaak comes off as just a scared child with a couple of good ideas. Or it could be silent, brooding Gabe, whom Izaak idolizes for going with Hero when the horse is taken by the Germans - what a story that adventure would've made! But - although they are all heroes of a sort, and although Gabe is a strong contender - none of them stand out in this story as THE hero.
Perhaps it's both simpler and more complex than that, and the heroes are every last one of them - all the survivors, all those who risked their lives to save and shelter the persecuted, all those who didn't make it. Izaak's mother. Mrs. Waterman. Els, Aunt Anna, Uncle Piet, the other kids. Izaak's father and sister. All of them heroes. Because what emerges most clearly from Attema's story is the Jewish family's plight, right up to the last days of the war. Attema successfully introduces this for an audience new or nearly new to the topic by laying out the relevant facts briefly, simply; by plunging the reader straight into Izaak's perilous present with clear and direct writing, and reserving for after the danger has passed (and the essential background communicated) such small details as rotten potatoes and the realization that removing the proscribed yellow star cannot erase its "shadow." With similar consideration for the youth of her audience, she describes rather than implies Izaak's feelings throughout. And yet, despite such concessions, the ending is realistically bittersweet - Izaak's mother returns, but his father's and sister's fates are unknown.
Cora Lee is a Vancouver, BC, writer and editor.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.