Review of My Family for the War
I love me a good WWII homefront story, so when I read the synopsis of My Family for the War, I knew it was a book for me. I should warn you that it is impossible to write about this book without spoilers, so if you want to read it, stop after the synopsis!
It’s 1938 and though the second world war hasn’t officially started, Berlin native Franziska (Ziska) Mangold, along with her friends and family, are already feeling the wrath of Hitler. Though she and her family are assimilated Jews, there are no exceptions to the rules, and Ziska and her friends are forced to attend an all-Jewish school and tolerate beatings on the way home from non-Jews that used to be their friends. The whole city is on edge, and after Ziska’s father is placed in a camp, her mother decides to put her on the list for the kindertransport, hoping it will give Ziska a safer, better life. Four days later, Ziska is on the train to London, where she is housed by her new foster family, the Shepherds. While things get off to a shaky start and Ziska is forced to leave them for a few months, the bond that grows between her and her new family makes her feel more connected to them than she ever did to her real family. As the war rages on and Ziska feels more and more that London is her home and the Shepherds are her family, she wonders whether, if her family are still alive, she’ll even want to return to them.
My Family for the War, originally written by Ravensburger Buchverlag and published in Germany under the title Liverpool Street in 2007, is a translation. It is a credit to everyone involved that the story translates almost flawlessly, making for a compelling, well-paced story. Ziska is a likable character, even moreso due to how real she is. While she is an intelligent girl who loves her parents and her friends, she also holds a grudge against her mother for sending her away and, once she reaches her teen years, deals with war better than she does her own hormones. I loved reading about her developing relationship with her foster family and watching her stand up to her temporary foster family in the country; when they treat her as a servant, giving her little to eat, stealing her belongings, and withholding her letters, she yells that she hopes one day they will know what it feels like to be separated from their family with no idea if they’ll ever be reunited.
The book also hosts some wonderful secondary characters: Gary, Ziska’s foster brother, is her first friend in England, haltingly conversing with her by poring over the English-German dictionary and helping her through her confusion of the Shepard’s Orthodox Jewish traditions. Her foster parents, Amanda and Matthew, are complex people that were abandoned respectively by their Jewish and Catholic families when they decided to wed. Watching their attachment to Ziska grow stronger throughout the book is heartwarming and amazing. Ziska’s friend Walter is a constant, if distant, presence in her life and is always a source of comfort for Ziska.
As I said, the story is well paced; the seven years covered never seems drawn out or jumpy, and we’re introduced to everything in due time. I loved how Voorhoeve used both wartime events and Ziska’s personal triumphs to mark time. Towards the middle of the novel, Gary joins the Navy and does very well, but a few years later, his ship goes down. The day, in small and world events, is a very happy one and Voorhoeve masterfully plays one off the other:
On the day Gary’s ship went down, the World Jewish Congress informed Western Governments about a monstrous document that had been signed in a villa in Wannsee. On the day Gary’s ship went down, American troops landed at Guadalcanal. On the day Gary’s ship went down, we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in school with different people speaking each part.
I also enjoyed Ziska’s struggle to learn English, and her London family’s willingness to write letters to her mother in German. Many times, when books deal with a person speaking a new language, they gloss over the brokenness of what must be coming out of a character’s mouth, instead choosing to write something like, “Excuse me, could you tell me where the café is?” I asked with difficulty. Voorhoeve actually shows the struggles. When Ziska goes door to door, trying to find work for her parents, she tries her best to speak coherent English, but her dictionary can only get her so far, and she ends up saying things like, “My parents look work,” and “Need you a help in the house?” Much later in the book, when Amanda writes a letter to Ziska’s mother, Amanda composes sentences like “Now that you and your husband happy in Holland, want my husband and I write to say that you for [Ziska] not worry. She is a very sweet girl and every day with us a great joy to have.”
However, as much as I enjoyed the novel as a whole, it had a few shortcomings that were very distracting. First, unless I missed it somehow, the reader doesn’t find out Ziska’s age until page seventy right. Ziska speaks like a teenager but is, in fact, ten years old. While I am always supportive of child characters that speak intelligently, Voorhoeve should have mentioned Ziska’s age earlier, as I had been picturing a fifteen year old in my brain and had to put the book down for a few minuets and change all of the pictures in my head when I found out that she was only ten.
The book opens with the sentence “I would never find another friend like Rebekka Liebich” and the same words appear in the last paragraph of the novel. With that, one would expect the book to focus quite a bit on ZIska’s friendship with Bekka, and weirdly, though parts of the book were written like it was, Bekka makes very few appearances and is only sometimes on Ziska’s mind. There seemed to be a disconnect, as if Voorhoeve had written all of the Bekka-centered parts first, then the rest of the novel, and forgot to link the two. Because of this, Ziska feeling guilty for having fun while Bekka’s voice scolds her in her head and finding out that Bekka and her family have died, has very little weight. I felt nothing when I read that Bekka was killed, and that was disappointing.
Another disconnect is which religion Ziska is. She explains in the beginning of the book that when she began being taunted for being Jewish, she denied it because she wasn’t; she had been a Christian for her whole life. Upon asking her parents, she learns that she did indeed have ancestors that were Jewish. I found it believable that she and her family would be targeted even being that removed from the Jewish faith, but the rest of the novel is confusing. At any given time, Ziska claims she’s Jewish, but a few pages later will mention that she is a Christian. She doesn’t even know what Yiddish is after going to a Jewish school for years and calls on Jesus for help. I would have accepted it if young Ziska, living with Orthodox Jews, had grown to embrace their religion, as she seems to, but in the last pages of the book, she claims that she still wholeheartedly believes in Jesus as Christians do. Such constant contradictions were quite annoying.
Lastly, though the book was, in general, well-written, I occasionally felt that I was stuck in a bad children’s novel. It may be a result of translation, but sentences such as “I kept it to myself, not telling anyone” and the constant unnecessary use of exclamation points (“I knew this vow was about more than just food!”; “…a couple hugging their son good-bye next to us glared at me. They had no way of knowing I was quoting a friend!”) made me look on Ziska as a silly little girl, which she is not.
While I was irritated by all of the disconnects in the novel, it speaks for the novel that I kept reading until the end. Though it is perhaps not as polished as it might have been, it is still a good, compelling story that you might do well to pick up.
Ruben looked at me with compassion. “You’re being persecuted and you don’t even know who you are.”
I, who had mastered the art of hiding in my earlier life, was surprised to discover how much fun it was to be found!
With every news report, I nervously scanned her face, looking for signs that would tell me whether it was a small, medium, or big catastrophe this time. A small catastrophe was good news. It didn’t get any better than that.
Ziska, master of the inappropriate response, champion of flight.
That morning, I made several disturbing discoveries. First, I didn’t have a single outfit that went together. Secondly, there wasn’t a single piece of clothing that genuinely looked flattering. And thirdly, I looked rather awful in general, something I had never noticed before. Amanda found me dissolved in tears with her room and mine looking like battlefields.
When we had to spend nights [in the shelter], this cold little tube of corrugated metal protected me from the bombs […] but there was no protection from a piece of paper.
A mother shouldn’t have to survive her child any more than one friend should live instead of another.