Once & Then – Morris Gleitzman, Penguin 2009

By Neil McCormick

Once and Then by Morris Gleitzman

They say, to use a bit of a cliche, never judge a book by its cover. However in the case of this book, the cover is a perfect guide to what lurks within. The cover as you can see above depicts a snowy scene, with a child with its back to us, heading in the direction of trees. The trees are an excellent choice to have on the cover as they no doubt represent a location where a fear of the unknown and unseen is often heightened, creating an increased sense of tension to the viewer.

Subtly within the foreground as if it was a pattern made in the snow is a “Star of David” Instantly giving the viewer a visual cue to the subject matter, this being the symbol used by nazis to identify jews.

After the rake of poor Holy Grail inspired imitations that were released after Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code to try and cash in, I must admit I approached this book wondering did we need another child’s perspective of the Holocaust. We have already had the wonderfully inspiring “Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” Well thankfully I can say we did.

Originally created for a teenage audience as two separate stories (one called Once, the other called Then), Once and Then have been combined into a single volume for the first time, and reissued by Penguin to appeal to a more adult audience. It’s a Holocaust novel and it follows the experiences of Felix, a young Jewish lad who having spent over three years in an orphanage in a remote area of Poland, sets out to find his bookseller parents, to warn them of the Nazi ‘book burners’ who have just paid a visit to the orphanage.

As the back of the book describes:-

“Felix is lucky. Unlike the other children in the orphanage, he’s certain his parents will come back for him one day. And whatever the Nazis do, and however many books they burn, Felix’s imagination provides him and his companions with an endless supply of stories – stories that protect them when they’re on the run, shield them from the violent madness all around, give them hope when all seems lost, and one day may even save Felix’s life.”

The crux to the book is that Felix who is jewish does not comprehend that it is his very religion that puts him in danger. Indeed, when the book opens Felix’s naivety is crystal clear: he truly believes he is only residing in a Catholic orphanage, not because his parents are dead, but because they are trying to sort out their problems as Jewish booksellers before coming back to rescue him.

His innocence is all the more tragic for the reader when you realise that Felix has been carrying this false hope with him for three years and eight months, and yet time has not diminished these feelings. In fact he is more worried that when his parents return they won’t recognise him because he’s changed so much in that time.

This sets Felix off on an amazing voyage of discovery in which he escapes the orphanage and begins a new life on the run. Along the way, he comes to the aid of a six-year-old girl, whom he rescues from a burning farm. Together Felix and Zelda form a formidable duo, that endures all kinds of highs and lows as they try to survive till the end of the war.

To supply any more detail would spoil the plot, because the enjoyment of reading Once & Then is letting the adventure unfurl page by page, and experiencing the adrenalin rushes, the shocks and the tears that this brings.

What makes this book all the more endearing is that there are plenty of laughs to be found, mainly regarding Felix and his delightfully naive child-like humour that serves to soften what would otherwise be a terribly dark and depressing story.

Above all else, Once & Then is a powerful story that demonstrates the strength and resilience of the human spirit. It’s a classic tale about courage and hope, and surviving against the odds all be it at a terrible price. And while it tackles one of the darkest and most shameful times in 20th century history, Gleitzman does it with great sensitivity.

One thing I really liked was that at the end of the book the author includes a link to his website and implores that the reader visits it and uses the bibliography there to read the first hand accounts that helped shape the book. http://www.morrisgleitzman.com/once/index.html

# Paperback: 256 pages
# Publisher: Penguin (6 Aug 2009)
# ISBN-10: 0141042796
# ISBN-13: 978-0141042794

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