Then continues the story of 10 year old Felix begun in Once. When Once ended, Felix and Zelda had just jumped from the cattle car heading to a concentration camp.
Then picks up the story as they flee through a forest. When they emerge from it, the first thing they see is a large pit in the ground full of the bodies of children and Nazis with machine guns standing around it. They flee back into the forest when the Nazis start shooting at them. While hiding, Felix and Zelda decide that the best thing for them to do is to look for kind, new parents to protect them and take care of them.They spend the night in the forest and the next morning a farmer picks them up in his wagon, but they run away when Felix sees he has a paper from the Nazis offering money and vodka in exchange for Jews. They head back into the forest, and just when they think it is OK to leave, a very strong woman grabs hold of them.
The woman takes them to her farm and locks them in her barn. Eventually, she pushes some food into the barn, which Felix and Zelda end up sharing with the pig that lives there. Later, they hear a truck arriving, just as the woman comes into the barn, spreading pepper across the front of it. When the Nazis come in looking for Jews that might be hidden there, their dog starts to sneeze and can’t smell anything. Clearly, the woman has no intention of turning Felix and Zelda over to the Nazis. Still, before they leave, the soldiers stab at the hay where the children are hiding, just in case.
The woman, whose name is Genia, brings the children into the house. She bathes and feed them. But, during his bath, Felix and Genia realize that he is circumcised, and that this could be a real problem, since Nazis always check to see if, as Felix refers to it, a male has a Jewish private part.
Genia then makes up stories about their lives for them to tell people. They pick new names, Wilhelm and Violetta, after their favorite fictional characters, William and Violet Elizabeth, in the William books by Richmal Crompton. Felix has always told Zelda calming stories from William and often prays to Crompton to help them survive.
Felix makes one dangerous enemy, Cyryl, the son of the store owner where they shop, and one semi-friend, Dov, who survived the Nazi massacre that Felix and Zelda saw. Felix also becomes friends with Amon, a reluctant Hitler Youth who is also a big fan of Richmal Crompton.
Zelda is Felix’s biggest problem. She doesn’t seem to remember the danger they are in and continuously does things that could provoke the Nazis, failing to show them the respect they demand. Even declaring herself Jewish out of anger towards her Nazi parents, though Felix wants her to wear her locket with her father’s picture in his uniform, to try and keep her safe. But being safe under Nazi rule is always tentative…
This is one of those books where it is difficult to write about the narrative without spoiling the whole thing for future readers, because everything and everyone is so interconnected with the action. I intentionally hadn’t read much about Then or the third book about Felix, Now, so when I read the ending of this I was very surprised. It really wasn’t what I expected.
Often a sequel fails in satisfying a reader, because the first book was so good. It feels like nothing can measure up to it, but that is not the case here. I was happy to see that Gleitzman was able to recapture Felix as I remember him, allowing growth because of his experiences but still very much the sweet, innocent storytelling 10 year old boy he was in Once. Gleitzman has done this with Zelda, too, who remains the same annoyingly-endearing, smart mouth 6 year old girl of Once, constantly asking ‘Don’t you know anything?’ whenever someone states the obvious.
Gleitzman continues to give us a clear picture of the level of cruelty the Nazis were capable of, the total disregard for human life that was inherent in Hitler’s system of belief, and the deprivations inflicted on people, who were expected to accept them or pay the price. But he also gives us a picture of the kindness human beings are also capable of, and through Amon, Gleitzman reminds us that not everyone who was German and wore a uniform subscribed to what the Nazis were doing.
If you haven’t already read Once, I would highly recommend that you give it a try. If you have and you enjoyed it, Then is a book for you, though I think either one works as a stand alone story. I am looking forward to reading the third and final story of Felix in Gleitzman’s book Now, in which he is now an 80 year old grandfather. Rumor had it that a four might be in the works, so I emailed him and asked if this was so. The answer: Yes, it is, there will be a fourth book. I look forward to that one, too.
This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up.
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL
An extensive Teacher’s Guide for Then is available from Penguin Books.