Don't be fooled by the "young adult" labeling of this book. This book should be required reading for all citizens, despite it being about a war that America was only belatedly involved in. In quiet, heart-wrenching, evocative prose, John Boyne lays bare the human costs of war, not only to the young men who fight them but also (and perhaps especially) the families, friends and communities they leave behind.
Alfie Summerfield isn't crazy about birthdays. That might have a whole lot to do with the fact that his fifth birthday was the day Britain joined World War I and Alfie's father went and joined up. "We're finished. We're all finished," Granny Summerfield keeps saying. And she's not far wrong either.
One of the things that struck me about this book is how young and poor the soldiers were. To Alfie, his parents are old, practically ancient. After all, his father, Georgie, was almost twenty-one the day he'd gotten married. And Georgie was one of the older ones - boys as young as 16 were signing up. Most of these boys and young men had graduated (or not) from their own meager educations, found a sweetheart and found themselves with a ready-made family within the year. Few had ever had a chance to explore life or discover what they wanted out of it for themselves. They took whatever job was available to support their families and muddled through life, raising their children to repeat the cycle a generation later.
In a household like that, children often had to be what modern readers might consider unusually precocious. Alfie, for instance, learned to read by the age of four. He was running to the store on errands for his parents soon after that. And at the ripe old age of five, Alfie can't understand why he's not old enough to ride the milk floats with his father. Fortunately, that precociousness comes in handy when your father goes off to serve and you are called to be the man of the house.
The main story picks up four years after Alfie's sorrowful fifth birthday. Alfie's mom had started hiding Georgie's letters, but Alfie managed to find them anyway, but they didn't make much sense. And then about a year ago they stopped coming altogether. Georgie is on a secret government mission to end the war sooner, Alfie is told. He can't write. But Alfie also happens to be precociously perceptive and he knows he's being lied to. He just doesn't know what to do about it.
Being the man of the house is not the only way Alfie must grow up quickly. His best friend Kalena Janacek's father is targeted as a spy and eventually both are taken away. His mother is forced to find work and leave him on his own at the tender age of eight. Being the "man of the house", Alfie feels it's his duty to provide for the family, since they are "perilously close to penury, Alfie Summerfield. Perilously close to penury." Alfie has never thought of himself as a thief, but Mr. Janacek's shoe-shine box comes in very handy. Very soon Alfie has put a shiny polish not only on many pairs of shoes but also on his ability to read people. And then comes that day he meets the doctor from that hospital for returning soldiers. But not exactly the usual kind of hospital.
In relatively few words, and in language not at all inappropriate for young readers, Mr. Boyne communicates the horrors and insanities of war and its aftermath in ways that make you feel like you're there. We find ourselves wanting to run out of that hospital right along with Alfie and to find a way to get his father out of that horrible place, and then we hate ourselves for our reaction, just like Alfie. But we know, right along with Alfie, that Georgie has to get out of that place, that he'll never recover in there with those dreadful noises and that awful smell.
Alfie is one of the most true and lovable characters I've encountered in a fiction book lately. I found myself wanting to just hug him like a little boy, but also knowing that at age nine he's already experienced more of the world than many grown men and he's too big for that sort of thing. We want to judge Alfie's mother for not telling him the truth, even in the face of his direct questions, but we also understand - maybe we wouldn't tell either. The other characters are likewise genuine, understandable and sympathetic, even when they're not behaving in sympathetic ways. Mr. Janacek, Joe Patience (the "conchie from No. 16") and Granny Summerfield are all the glories and the foibles of humanity in their own ways.
Mr. Boyne also has developed a great sense of time and place. We feel the rugged, gritty life of the urban poor, their joys and struggles as they do what needs doing and keep a stiff upper lip. We feel the deprivations of the war rationing and we confront the issues of the day - women's suffrage, patriotism, duty, honor, service to country, the "stiff upper lip" that conceals so much, but makes it possible to go on, as if going on is the only option.
I would love to tell you about the wonderful illustrations by Oliver Jeffers, who happens to be one of my favorite children's authors/illustrators, but unfortunately my advanced readers copy does not yet have the illustrations. This is a great disappointment and I may need to buy fully-published version just for that. I cannot imagine how this book will be illustrated, given the harrowing subject matter, but it can only help to bring this book even further to life - perhaps unbearably so.
This book confronts so many issues - war and peace, love and loss, betrayal, truth and lies, and the value of life - on so many different levels that it can be read many times at different ages and there will always be something new to discover. Once again, I cannot urge you enough to overlook the "young adult" designation and read this book whatever your age. It will haunt you.