THEN Morris Gleitzman, Puffin, 2008, 183 pages, paperback, NZ$ 23.00
“Then we ran for our lives, me and Zelda, up a hillside as fast as we could.”
Morris Gleitzman’s Once was Felix’s account of how he and 6 year old Zelda escaped from the Nazis in occupied Poland. Felix’s innocence protected him from grasping just how dark the menace which threatened them was. The sequel, Then, begins just as Once ended, with the pair escaping from the train to the death camp.
Felix is only ten and he still prays to Richmal Crompton (because she always keeps William and Violet Elizabeth safe in her stories). Since he has to bury his friend Chaya and then stumbles upon a pit full of dead children in the course of the first chapter alone, Felix isn’t so innocent any more but he is fiercely protective of Zelda, whose questions echo down the ages. “Those children who were shot. Where are their mummies and daddies?”
Can Felix and Zelda carry off their portrayal of orphaned Wilhelm and Violetta? Or will they be betrayed? Gleitzman has written Felix’s narrative with great skill and simplicity, so that the act of simple survival becomes an epic triumph. Then is sad, funny and inspiring.
This review first appeared in The Press, Christchurch New Zealand on 23rd August 2008.