Living in the land of the free makes it difficult to imagine what life must have been like in Europe in 1940. Annika Thor’s evocative writing in A Faraway Island takes us back in time and delivers a heartfelt story about a family that is separated as a result of the invasion of the Nazis. The winner of the Batchelder Award for an outstanding children’s book translated from a foreign language and subsequently published in the United States.
World War II was a horrifying time for many, but it was especially difficult for the hundreds of children that were shipped off to other countries in the hopes of being reunited with their families once again. Such was the plan for twelve year old Stephie and eight year old Nellie. Together they traveled by train and ship to foster families in Sweden. They were comforting each other and dreaming of a life of comfort and safety. Upon their arrival they soon learn that they would not be living together. However frightening that may seem, they were comforted by the fact that they were not too far apart and would maintain contact. Nellie’s foster parent, Aunt Alma, was kind warm and loving. While Stephie’s foster parent was cold, stern, and anything but nurturing.
Nellie appears to assimilate to the language and culture quickly without reservation. Stephie is acquiring the language quickly but has great difficulty adjusting to life on the island. She doesn’t like eating fish for dinner, her language is sometimes a barrier, her classmates make fun of her because she is a foreigner and some perceive her to like Hitler. The reader can feel the sense of loneliness and isolation as Stephie longs for her parents and the life she once knew. Stephie manages to persevere through each day with the hope that within six months she and Nellie will be reunited with their parents in America.
Throughout the story Stephie has many internal conflicts as well. She was a Jew and her foster parents baptized both Stephie and Nellie Pentecostal, she has flashbacks to the anti-Semitism she has experienced and witnessed, she has the burden of monitoring her sister and the plight of trying to get visas for her own parents. Not to mention the fact that there is word the war could spread to Sweden and Nellie and Stephie could be on the move again and possibly completely separated. Imagine the amount of apprehension for a twelve year old girl.
Thor’s novel was inspired by true events and is a first in a series of four books. Thor writes in her author’s note;
These novels are based on interviews with about a dozen of the real refugees who shared their childhoods, their letters, and their diaries, as well as on the research of Ingrid Lomfors, a Jewish historian in Sweden who explored the destinies of the five hundred refugee children. I have listened to my own parents’ stories about what it was like to live as Jewish teenagers in Sweden during WWII.
I didn’t want to tell Stephie’s story as historical, but as a story in the here and now. Today, too, children and young people have to escape from their countries, leaving their families behind. And even today, the care we give to refugee children who arrive alone, in Sweden and other wealthy nations, is not what it ought to be. One of my aspirations for these books about Stephie and Nellie is that they will contribute to a better understanding of the vulnerable situation in which refugee children continue to live.
While this book is about a time in history it connects to our lives today. There are issues of displacement, learning the meaning of your own identity, and the worldwide joys and sorrows of growing up. It offers a glimpse into our past; an opportunity to question and understand why there was prejudice, why man could be so inhumane toward another man, and why there was such a strong desire for freedom.