The girl becomes a woman in a country not quite home
Judith Kerr here continues her wonderful trilogy (this is part 2) in which she turns her own life into fiction.
Judith (given the identity of Anna in the books) was a German Jewish girl who left Germany very early, as a child, with her immediate family, and had settled in England, aged 12 by 1936. That first book, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, was definitely written for children close to 9 or 10 as a minimum age, though its upper age readership widens to include the not so young adult as well as the YA market, as the writing itself, and the viewpoint, though accessible, is deep enough to be experienced and enjoyed at whatever level of understanding the reader possesses. I learned a lot about the life of a refugee, from the child’s eye viewpoint despite being long past childhood.
Pink Rabbit ended as the Kerr family arrived in wet, confusing London.
Bombs on Aunt Dainty covers the period 1936 to the end of the war, and takes Anna, who is a delightful, talented, observant – in the artist’s and writer’s way – girl and young woman, through her adolescence and into life as a young woman, including that delirious and heady period of `first love’ where intensity of feeling is overwhelming and almost at times too much to bear. It of course adds a particular intensity and irony to the electric sense of being in love with everything, with life itself, as well as the beloved, when this is played out against the background of the Blitz, and when Anna is employed by an organisation which is engaged in exchanging the uniforms of dead soldiers and sailors for new recruits, and she is also part of the firewatching volunteers during the Blitz, seeing death and destruction up close.
Judith/Anna is also discovering herself as a highly gifted artist, and a large part of the book is devoted to her art classes, and her growing excitement and involvement in her particular life path. Paradoxically, as she becomes more and more sure of her `English’ identity, she becomes aware that her parents, who once were gods and took care of her as they negotiated the escape from Germany and the refugee life in Switzerland, France and England, become, once Britain enters the war, more and more displaced people, more and more finding their original nationality creating problems. Anna passes absolutely as an English born and bred young women – until of course she encounters officialdom and background checks.
This book absolutely fizzes – Anna’s is so lively, intelligent, naïve, hungry to learn and eat up life – but it also dips into despair and a sense of the meaninglessness of life, the personal suffering which can overwhelm anyone at times, making the `in love with it all’ feel like an unbearable sham. Teens and twenties absolutely a time of the rollercoaster between the twin poles of love and death, which humanistic psychotherapists are often engaged in working with, with their adult clients.
Here is Anna/Judith electrified by her first experience of seeing an exhibition of the Impressionists, after which:
She spent hours looking at a book about the French Impressionists…..and some of the reproductions so delighted her that it was almost as though she could feel them with her eyes. When there was music on the radio in the lounge it seemed to her unbearably beautiful, and the sight of the dead men’s clothes at work made her unbearably sad. (but even this was curiously agreeable)
Later, due to a combination of events, she goes through a period of profound despair, and searches to find any point to any of it, thinking of the terrible events of the war and the way her parents’ cultured, meaningful lives stopped, and they became refugees, living hand to mouth. In a conversation with her father, he offers another viewpoint:
The chief point about these last, admittedly wretched years……is that it is infinitely better to be alive that dead. Another is that if I had not lived through them I would never have known what it felt like……..To be poor, even desperate, in a cold, foggy country where the natives, though friendly, gargle some kind of Anglo-Saxon dialect…..I’m a writer,…A writer has to know….There is a piece of me, quite separate from the rest, like a little man sitting in my forehead. And whatever happens, he just watches. Even if it’s something terrible. He notices how I feel……and he says, how interesting! How interesting to know that this is what it feels like
Anna/Judith is beautifully soulful and beautifully present to the authenticity of embracing all of it.
I look forward with delight to the third and final volume