________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 3. . . .September 17, 2010


Hunger Journeys.

Maggie de Vries.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2010.
278 pp., pbk., $14.99.
ISBN 978-1-55468-579-0.

Grades 7-11 / Ages 12-16.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected Proof.



“Two weeks later, Piet caught up with Lena one afternoon as she was heading down the block.”

“They’re going to try to bribe us,” Piet said. “We have to stop them.”

Lena was bewildered and annoyed. “Who? What are you talking about?” she said as she tried to sidle past her brother. She was due at Sofie’s in a few minutes, and she was eager to get away for a bit.

“The Germans,” Piet said, annoyance in his voice as well. “Who do you think? They’re going to call up all the men again, but this time they’re promising to help their families. They know how desperate everyone is.”

“But you’re not in the age range, Piet. Right? And neither is Father.”

“Is that all you think about? Your own family? They’re calling up all men between sixteen and forty!”

Lena felt a stirring of guilt. How could her brother care so much and she so little? She also felt anger. Why was everyone always putting their stuff onto her? It wasn’t fair. Didn’t she do enough at home already? That was what her war effort amounted to: peeling and cooking sugar beets!

Some of the determination was gone from Piet’s voice when he next spoke. Still, speak he did. “They’re going to poster the city right before Christmas, ordering men up and offering food for their families and exemptions for those who need them. We’re going to be right there after them with our own posters. We’re going to cover theirs up. Tell people the truth.”

“We?” Lena echoed.

“Yes, we,” Piet said. “And ‘we’ could include you. There’s a lot of work to be done, Lena. We’re all needed.”

Lena shivered. Not far from where they stood, a woman and a boy were rooting through a heap of garbage, hoping for something useful or, even better, edible. The one street sign that she could see was in German, not in Dutch. Stumps stood where trees had been. Barbed wire coiled where there had been gardens. And the canals were frozen solid, but Lena didn’t think she had seen a single person skating.

Not one. Lena took it all in. Then she tried to imagine sneaking around the city with her brother, posters in hand. The very things that made action so necessary also made it deadly. “Piet, I....I have to go,” she said, shoving past him and taking off down the street.”

Lena and her friend, Sophie, are teenagers in Amsterdam during World War II, and this final winter of the war means they and their families are struggling just to survive. The two girls decide to make a hunger journey, that is, they will take the train into the countryside where they might work and earn food packages to send back home. They have fake German papers but are soon discovered by authorities. Fortunately, a young solider named Albert and his friend, Ulrich, take pity on the girls, helping them hide in the straw of a cattle car to make the perilous journey to Almelo. But that is only the beginning of the adventure as the two teens meet face to face with the realities of war and what people are driven to do in such extreme circumstances. The girls find little sympathy for their plight, just a grudging acceptance in the village which later turns into dangers of all kinds, totally unanticipated by Lena and Sofie.

     De Vries dedicates this novel to her mother-in-law, who had told her similar stories, and perhaps this is why the book is so real. Descriptions of Amsterdam during this last phase of the war are heart-breaking: people searching garbage in the hopes of finding food and foraging for wood in order to keep warm and boil some water. Any Jews have long vanished from the city. Understandably tensions run high in Lena’s family when her father seems to put himself first, her mother is pregnant, and her brother Piet is becoming more and more involved with the Resistance. Once in Almelo, things seem to go from bad to worse as Lena must work hard for her keep and prevent unwanted advances from the man of the house. The settings both in Amsterdam and in the countryside are absolutely believable and depicted in careful detail in De Vries’s almost photographic descriptions. We see the devastation; we smell the blood of the newly killed cow; we taste the almost inedible sugar beets which are the staple of every meal. The German patrols frighten and humiliate us.

      De Vries’s characters are everyday heroes in a chaotic world. As typical teenage girls, both are interested in boyfriends, love and the imaginary future world of marriage and family. Sofie, the romantic, dreams great dreams and has incredible enthusiasm and imagination. Lena is more pragmatic. She is less inclined to rush into new situations, but, when faced with difficulty, she has both the wit and the courage to deal with events. In the cattle car on the train or working for the resistance, she is put into challenging circumstances, and yet she manages to remain calm and capable, at least long enough to get the job done. She is human, too, and so the tears and fears surface once the job is done.

      Hunger Journeys is an exemplary young adult novel, with a quick-paced and interesting plot line, characters who involve the reader on many levels and a setting which transports the reader to a different time and place. Thus, it can be read as a book which combines adventure, intrigue and a touch of romance. However, it also ties in well with any curriculum dealing with World War II and the war theatre of Europe since it truly makes the history of that time come alive. A useful inclusion in the book might be a map of the Netherlands, particularly showing Amsterdam and some of the surrounding towns. This would help verify names and places for the historian reading the book as well as providing terms of reference for the casual fiction reader as well.

      Hunger Journeys is historical fiction at its best. Readers are taken into the Netherlands of 1944 from the first page and are immediately immersed in the sights, sounds and sentiments of that terrible time. But beyond that, De Vries introduces us to characters with strength and determination, passion and humour which supersede any specific historical era. Closing the book was not easy - I wanted the story to continue and the characters to live on. De Vries so involves her readers that it seems difficult to return from the reality of her fiction to the real world! The only consolation is that Hunger Journeys is De Vries’ first young adult novel, so hopefully readers – and reviewers! – will enjoy many more to come.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson is a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French who lives in Ottawa, ON.

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

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