And what a story it is, one that really begins on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, when the Schlesinger apartment is destroyed by Nazis and Anna's father is arrested and taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. Back home weeks later, a heartbreaking decision is made by her parents to send Anna, 12, to safety in England on the Kinderstransport. No sooner does her journey begin, then she has a sleeping baby boy thrust at her through the train window. Anna cares for the baby, refusing to give the little stowaway up until they arrive in England and she has assurances he will be taken care of properly.
After more traveling, Anna finds herself on an estate farm in Kent with no electricity or indoor plumbing, but with a family that warmly welcomes her into their home - Aunty Rose and Uncle Bert Dean, their young son Frank, 6, and Molly, also 12-years-old and with whom Anna will share a room.
Anna adjusts to English life on a farm, but when Hitler invades Poland, and England and France declare war with Germany, she is crushed as all hope that her parents could also escape to England is completely destroyed.
Meanwhile, a boy at school, Billy Townsend, insists that Anna is a German spy, sending secrets back to help the Nazis invade England, even going so far are to write up a list of reasons to prove it and to turn the other kids in school against her. But when Molly betrays her because of Billy, it is almost more than Anna can take and she begins to avoid Molly as much as possible.
Until an injured man who calls himself Peter Smith and who claims to be a British soldier is found in the hay loft in the barn. He tells them that his mother is very ill and he wants to visit her, even though he doesn't have leave to go, and that he had injured his ankle on his way, so he can't walk. The children are very sympathetic, offering food and water, and even agreeing to mail a letter for him. But after they leave the barn, Anna goes back to get the family cat and hears the soldier speaking German. Realizing he probably is a German spy injured when he parachuted into the area, Molly and Frank refuse to let her report him to the authorities - Frank had repeated some important top secret war-related information to Molly that he had overheard his dad telling his mum. If they report the spy, and he repeats what he may have overheard Frank say, their dad might be tried for treason - punishable by death.
What can they do to get the spy arrested and still keep Mr. Dean safe? They do come up with a plan for that, but will it work?
Some things I really liked about this book:
Anna at War is my favorite kind of WWII story. It's exciting, it has lots of local detail about what WWII was like for those living in the English countryside, and most importantly, it has lots of detail about what life was like in Nazi Germany for Jews like the Schlesinger's. Helen Peters doesn't hold back on her descriptions of the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses on Kristallnacht, the cruel anti-Semitism of people who used to be their friends, and what a few weeks in a concentration camp did to Anna's father. And the decision by the Schlesinger's to send Anna away, not knowing if they will ever see each other again, is presented in all its agonizing difficulty and its emotionally wrenching reality. Yet, it is all handled with a good deal thoughtfulness, considering the age of the target reader.
Anna is depicted as a sensitive girl, who has a strong understanding of right and wrong, and who always tries to act responsibly. She's also pretty courageous, resourceful, stubborn and even defiant when she needs to be - character traits that are made very clear right from the beginning. Her story is compelling and because it is Anna recounting her life to her grandson, it is told in the first person in a voice that is authentic, clear and very powerful.
Peters has also captured the fears of the English that they too could be invaded by Nazi Germany just as so many European countries had been. And fears that spies like Peter Smith were parachuting into England (this did happen, but not all that frequently) to make the invasion easier are also presented in Billy Townsend's insistence that Anna is a spy and his rallying schoolmates, including Molly, into believing such a far-fetched idea is testament to how contagious and persuasive hate can be - even in the schoolyard, even in the face of facts.
Anna at War is a must read for anyone interested in historical fiction set in WWII. I picked it up and couldn't put it down once I started reading. And there is a wonderful denouement that makes Anna journey just so very rewarding.
This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library
Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle.