________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 30 . . . . April 9, 2010


The Gnome's Eye.

Anna Kerz.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2010.
210 pp., pbk., $9.95.
ISBN 978-1-55469-195-1.

Grades 4 and up / Ages 9 and up.

Review by Ruth Latta.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



You have courage if you swimming all the way over a big lake. It is courage to killing a rat. You must have courage to turn on a stove that goes pop. It is big courage to go to a new country when you cannot talk and understand. And you have courage when you must speak the truth. It is hard to be courage when you are small.


It takes courage to read a composition aloud in class when you are new to the English language, but it is one of the challenges that 10-year-old Theresa Becker surmounts in her quest to belong somewhere.

     Toronto teacher Anna Kerz begins her novel in 1954 in an Austrian refugee camp where Theresa and her parents are on the threshold of a huge life change - immigration to Canada. The Beckers are Danube Swabians, descendants of German people who were settled by imperial Austria in the Danube River Valley in the 1700s. After the First World War, these ethnic Germans found themselves divided among three countries, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia (home of the fictional Beckers). When Hitler's troops invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, Yugoslavian men of German descent were recruited into the German army. Then, when the tide of war changed and the Red Army was advancing westward, 60% of Danube Swabians fled Yugoslavia on the heels of the retreating German army. The Beckers ended up as refugees in Austria where they were mocked for their archaic-sounding language, a blend of 18th century German dialects.

     Kerz, who immigrated to Toronto as a child in the 1950s, has written a realistic novel that shows the trauma of adjustment to a new culture. The Gnome's Eye also contains mythical, magical elements that give it an added dimension. Structurally, this novel follows the Hero's Journey pattern as described by Joseph Campbell, the scholar of myth and symbol, archetype and metaphor. The Hero's Journey is most often associated with action/adventure novels, but it works well in presenting a child immigrant's experience.

     In a typical Hero's Journey plot, the novel starts out in the "normal" world, which, in Theresa's case, is the refugee camp. The "call to adventure" is the opportunity to find in Canada a better life and a place to belong. Usually only one mentor figure prepares the hero to take up the challenge, but Theresa has four, and each presents her with a talisman. A kindly elderly couple give her a baby doll which plays a significant role later in the novel. Theresa's playmate, Martin, from the refugee barracks gives her a pebble which he calls a "gnome's eye."

"A gnome's eye always turns to stone when it falls out," he tells her. "It will protect you from all things evil, alive or dead. Take it."


     From her grandmother, Oma, who comes from another refugee facility to say goodbye, Theresa receives a tangible gift, earrings, and an insight. Theresa wakes in the night to find her formidable grandmother weeping to Mami, saying that she will die alone. With a jolt, the child learns that a forbidding person may have a soft and frightened heart. Stricken, Theresa pipes up and says that maybe she and Mami and Tati shouldn't go. Then comes another surprise. Oma reacts angrily, declaring that Theresa's opinion is "hingelsdreck." Oma seems to be a witch, but, in sacrificing her hope of company in her old age so that her family can have a better life, she may actually be a fairy godmother.

     The journey includes such tests as separation from Tati for the duration of the voyage, seasickness and dealing with difficult fellow passengers. Once in Toronto, at Mrs. Sniderman's Kensington Avenue rooming house, there are encounters with scary tenants, bedbugs and a rat.

     One of the tenants appears to be a gnome. "The Little Man" is diminutive, hunched, speaks an unintelligible language, wheezes, paces at night, and calls Theresa "Sarah." Though he appears friendly and leaves her caramels, Mami warns Theresa to stay away from him.

     Kerz is skilled at creating an uneasy atmosphere. Home alone during the summer holidays, Theresa says, "The silence in the house swirled around me, rang in my ears, pressed on my chest." Children are not treated gently in this novel; nobody is trained in child psychology or has had the benefit of watching The Nanny on television. At one point, Mami tells Theresa: "Lightning and thunder are signs that God is angry. God hates lies. He punishes liars." On presenting Theresa with her wedding earrings, Oma tells her: "You never know. Sometimes even homely girls find men who want to marry them." Illness and death are very much present, from Mr. Besselmayer's cough and Oma's fear of dying alone to Mrs. Sniderman's account of the effects of a long terminal illness.

     Until Theresa makes friends with Lydia from across the street, she dislikes school. She hates being in Grade Three and sitting at the back with another newcomer. Her first report card shows an "A" for arithmetic and "D" for everything else. "I know how hard you've worked, how much you've learned," the kindly teacher tells the two new students. "But I have to mark you for what you can do...You didn't fail."

     Theresa's empathy with other fearful and lonely characters leads her to break rules in order to connect with others. Ultimately, the grown-ups recognize her wisdom. By answering back to a nun at school, Theresa calls attention to the needs of a disadvantaged student. The novel's turning point occurs when she disobeys Mami to help someone in danger of dying alone. In the end, she gives this person two of her talismans. In other Hero's Journeys, the hero may win a tangible prize, but in Theresa's case, the prize is her triumph over fear.

     A final challenge comes when Mother Nature goes berserk as Theresa is returning home from school, and she has to rescue a friend. Kerz uses Hurricane Hazel to show people together in a primordial sea, overcoming their fear by reaching out to help others. In the final scene, we see the Beckers as part of a community which Theresa has helped to create.

     The cover design, which is beyond the author's control, is the only weak aspect of The Gnome's Eye. The sickly green, brown and pink may call to mind the rooming house wallpaper, but the novel is so much more than that! I foretell awards for this grittily realistic novel with Grimm overtones.

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Latta's most recent novel, Spelling Bee, (Ottawa, Baico, 2009) is for grown-ups.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.