Book Review: A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

A Winter's Day in 1939A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cormac’s Review – 10yrs
“This was a good book all about the second world war and being moved around places to different concentration camps. It is about one family from Poland who is experiencing all of this, starvation, cold, work, sickness and death. So many tragic things happened to them. They lost their farm and were moved all around Russia on trains and by horse and cart and even walking in the snow. It was written from a boy’s point of view and how he felt about everything that was happening and it was so realistic because I could imagine being there. Especially on the train with the pipe for the toilet. But I wish it didn’t end with the [spoiler removed] because that was really sad. I wanted to know what happened to her, and I wanted them to keep searching for her. 4 stars, I really liked it.”

Mum’s Review: 
One of the interesting things about reading aloud is that you have three different experiences – first is your own personal experience of the book, the second is observing how the book is received by your listener, and the third is the shared experience; what you both gain from discussing particular events as they occur.

And what I learnt as a result of reading “A Winter’s Day in 1939” is that these three different experiences can be quite distinct; what impacts me, is not necessarily what impacts the one listening (in this case, a 10 year old). I think there is wisdom in this somewhere – it’s not about writing “down” to children, it’s about being able to get inside their world and share it as they experience it.

It was interesting to observe, for example, how quickly Cormac responded to the “and then” nature of the book (“and then” being a completely adult take on it). In truth, it is written with far more sophistication than this, but the fact remains it is a chronologically-told tale. Where I might have wanted some deeper enlightenment, or reflection from above or from the future looking back, or an objective narrator to lay out out the historical and political factors influencing the events taking place, the kid just wanted to know: What happened next? The simplicity was what drew him in – from Page 1 until the very end, he was hooked.

There is no doubt that the story is a powerful one. It illuminates a side of the war which I myself knew very little about – that of the Polish refugees caught between warring nations locked in an arm wrestle over territory and power. Adam is a 12 year old boy whose family is forced off their land and into a succession of labour camps around Russia. While Poland’s fate hangs in the balance, Adam and his brother and sister and mother cling to one another to survive the most brutal, punishing conditions – watching helplessly as others do not. The family suffer their own heartbreaking losses too.

What I most appreciated in “A Winter’s Day in 1939” was the beauty and simplicity of the writing, and in particular the way a child’s eye-view was captured in the descriptions of place and people:

Buildings had tumbled down into the street. Some were roofless, like soft-boiled eggs with their lids off. Here and there I saw signs of repair: fresh wooden weatherboards like raw scars, and tarpaulins keeping out the winter weather. But some places were beyond fixing and had been abandoned to the elements, their insides exposed, frozen with an icing of snow.

and

As the temperatures warmed everyone relaxed, thinking the worst was over. We were wrong. Diseases thrived in the warm, sticky air and weren’t fussy about who they infected. Now even fit people got sick. Death waltzed into camp every day.

Despite the fact that I say I would have liked to have been able to delve deeper into the motivating political issues of the time, in actual fact, through small details and minor clues, Szymanik does a very good job of highlighting the push and pull of external forces dictating the reality of the Adam’s life. And the interesting thing (going back to how an adult perceives a book versus a child) Cormac wasn’t particularly interested in the why’s and the why-not’s anyway. He understood that it wasn’t fair that Adam’s family was kicked out of their house and he pitied all the things they had to go through, but he actually didn’t need a history lesson on all the detailed reasons why. He just wanted to know: Will they survive?

And that is what kept him haranguing me “Read, Mama, Lets Read!”
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One thought on “Book Review: A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

  1. Pingback: A Winter’s Day in 1939, Melinda Szymanik

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