John Boyne’s Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is an absolute gem of a book. It’s being marketed as a YA novel, but don’t let that fool you. This is a book that will reward readers of all ages, one that’s definitely going on the “essentials” shelf.
I don’t want to say too much about the contents because I don’t want to spoil them for you, but I do want to say enough to convince you that this is a book you should track down and read—and soon!
Alfie Summerfield is five when his father volunteers for the British Army at the start of World War I. He’s an interesting, quirky kid, with a child’s sense of time: “Georgie and Margie [Alfie's parents] had been very old when they got married—he [Alfie] knew that much. His dad had been almost twenty-one and his mum was only a year younger.”
At first, Alfie’s father writes regularly, but then the letters stop coming. Alfie’s mum tells Alfie his dad is on a secret mission, but Alfie grow less and less sure of her honesty as his father’s absence grows more extended. Is his father dead? If he’s on a secret mission, what sort of mission is it?
Alfie and his mum quickly become “perilously close to penury,” as she puts it. She works double shifts at a hospital, waking him before she leaves for work in the morning. Sitting alone eating his breakfast each day, Alfie props the newspaper up in font of him as he remembers his dad doing, but he’s only interested in one kind of news:
[H]e did what he always did in the morning. He turned to page four to read the numbers. The numbers of deaths on our side. The number of deaths on their side. The number of wounded. But there was only one number Alfie really cared about: 14278. His dad’s number. The number they’d assigned him when he signed up.
Now the man of the family, Alfie (who ages from five to nine years old over the course of the novel) cuts school and spends four days a week at King’s Cross Station shining shoes in order to make a few pennies to slip into his mother’s purse. But he never cuts school on Monday or Thursday—those are History day and Reading day, his two favorite subjects.
Alfie’s losses extend beyond his missing father and less-present mum: his best friend Kalena and her father are deported to the Isle of Man as enemy aliens because they come from Prague; Alfie’s father’s best friend Joe is first jailed, then regularly assaulted once he returns home, for being a Conshie, a Conscientious Objector; lots of young men leave the neighborhood, never to return. Alfie understand what is meant when a friendly passenger on a train comments on his age: “you’ll be ten soon enough, I imagine. Nine-year-old boys usually turn ten at some point. It’s the nineteen-year-olds who have difficulty turning twenty.”
The writing in Stay Where You Are is deceptively simple, communicating complexities in ways that will be clear to younger readers and intellectually satisfying to older ones. This isn’t a book that ends “happily ever after,” but it doesn’t rob readers of all sense of hope. People fail one another, but they do their best. They have courage to change as they see their own actions in different lights. “Less bad” is better than “more bad,” even if it isn’t “good.”
This book is being released in the U.S. on March 25 (it’s also been published in the UK). Look for a copy, read it, pass it on to a younger (or older) friend. You’ll have much to talk about as you share Alfie’s attempts to understand—and to affect—the adult world that he sees around him.