When his grandfather dies, Mika inherits his great coat – and its treasure trove of secrets. In one hidden pocket, he discovers the puppet prince. Soon, Mika is performing puppet shows in even the darkest, most cramped corners of the ghetto, bringing cheer to those who have lost their families, those who are ill and those who are afraid for their future – until he is stopped by a German soldier and forced into a double life of danger and secrecy.
Yes… this is a story of endurance and bravery during the darkest time for Europe during World War II, when Jews were systematically targeted for no other reason than they were a distinct ethnic group that made them an easy scapegoat. Young Mika discovers the small puppets and uses them to create an escape from the increasingly grim reality around them – and then is prompted to share them with those around him, until a German soldier forces him to entertain the troops with his little shows.
There are times when I was concerned the story would tip into sentimentality – but fortunately Weaver managed to avoid going there. Her graphic descriptions of the full horror of the Jewish ghetto is unflinching, along with the fate of the inhabitants once they are rounded up and the neighbourhood is emptied… However, I have read books where that aspect has been fully covered with perhaps more technical dexterity – Weaver’s dialogue at times is clunky which does detract from some of the emotional intensity in some of those crucial scenes. However, what made this offering stand out for me, is that her narrative doesn’t end with the war. I really liked the fact that unlike so many survivor tales I’ve previously read, this one doesn’t end on some triumphant note once hostilities come to an end. Because those caught up in such a bloody, dehumanising business are never free of it – the issue then becomes how they can best deal with those experiences once life returns to normal.
While I had found Mika’s story reasonably engrossing, it is Max’s tale that made me want to read far into the night. It was wrenching to read of his terrible trek from the Russian gulag and then struggle so profoundly to fit back into the family that had been the impetus for his fight for survival during the darkest times in the prison camp. It was this story strand that, for me, sang off the pages.
I would add that this isn’t a read for the faint-hearted – Weaver hasn’t held back from vividly recreating the misery and horror that occurs when far too many people are crammed into a space not equipped for the numbers, without sufficient food. But it left me musing on the nature of survival, guilt and responsibility and I’m glad I’ve read it. If you are interested in reading something that takes the events of WWII and spools them forward to follow the protagonists long after the last shot is fired, then track it down – it’s worth it.