In Monique Charlesworth’s impeccably researched novel, The Children’s War, on separate occasions two very different characters come to the conclusion that history is written by winners. The first speaker, a German Colonel in the SS, maintains that might makes right, “everything was legitimate if you won.” The second man, a French curé and member of the Resistance, points out that since it’s the victors’ version of history that will prevail, “nobody will tell the story of the children.”

A British writer who has lived in France and Germany and is fluent in both French and German (the two languages pepper the text throughout), Charlesworth has chosen to recount this raw and painful tale of the ravages of war through the eyes of two German children, one a girl, the other a boy. Both around 13 in 1939, their linked lives are a kind of mirror image of each other.

Ilse is the daughter of Otto Blumenthal, a Jew, and Lore Lindemann, a Lutheran. In her small hometown of Wuppertal, she bears the stigma of Jewishness, though ignorant of Jewish beliefs and practice, and largely abandoned by her father, whose left-wing politics as much as his origins have removed him from her life.

Nicolai Bucherer is the son of a Hamburg university professor and a frivolous heiress. His life is privileged but troubled. He attends Hitler Youth activities without enthusiasm, is leery of his Nazi older half-brother, and uneasy about the quarrels of his parents over his father’s refusal to join the Party.

On the eve of war, Ilse’s mother Lore—a lawyer unable to practise law, since Hitler has forbidden women to do so—makes a fateful decision. She has saved enough to either send Ilse by herself to Morocco to be sheltered by relatives, or to get the two of them to France together. Lacking confidence in her ability to make a living in a strange country, Lore dispatches the child to Morocco. Initially this seems a wise move; ilse’s six-month sojourn there with her uncle, a naturalized French citizen, provides an oasis of colour and security in a life that has so far been punctuated by persecution and family strife. She dreams of Lore joining her in her new exotic home where “they would forget all about Germany and never talk about it ever again.” In the meantime, Lore finds a job as a nursemaid in the Bucherer household in Hamburg, thus supplying the connective tissue between the two narrative strands of the novel.

Lore’s plans for Ilse’s safety backfire when war breaks out and the uncle returns the child to France. From this point on Ilse is a fugitive—cut off even by mail from the mother she adores. We follow her tortuous progress in German-occupied Paris, Marseilles, and Cannes with horrified fascination as the author meticulously recreates a world of fear, subterfuge, massive societal hypocrisy, and the nitty gritty of life on the perpetual run.

On one level Children of War is a clear and lucid exploration of the nature of survival. At the same time, it’s a clever and subtle tale that draws its strength from the anomalous and ambiguous points of view and situations of its two engaging protagonists and of the flawed adults who orbit around them.

Brought up without religion, Ilse finds solace in Catholic churches whose “rituals and holy smells” soothe her. Nicolai strikes up a friendship with a subversive proletarian boy who introduces him to Hamburg’s underground jazz clubs. Ilse becomes involved in another kind of underground, smuggling refugees from France into Spain. The shifting tides of war slowly reconfigure the notion of where safety lies. Hamburg, to where Lore valiantly but vainly tries to get Ilse to return, becomes an inferno during the Allied bombing raids of 1943. Charlesworth describes these attacks with singular power and imaginative reach.

The unreliability of adults and the difficulty of knowing what the right course of action might be give this book a sense of nuanced authenticity. Ilse’s father is a case in point. A difficult and unpleasant man who uses the child as a pawn in his protracted battle with Lore, he is nonetheless the moral compass of the novel. Only towards the end of the book do we recognize that Otto’s stubborn idealism and intractable opposition to fascism from the get go were the appropriate responses to evil.

The publicity material accompanying The Children’s War states that it’s based on real events experienced by the author’s family. Reading between the lines of Charlesworth’s bio and her aknowledgements, I found it impossible not to speculate that Ilse’s tale is based on that of Charlesworth’s own mother. If so, it helps explain for me why Ilse’s sections of the novel are tauter and more compelling than Nicolai’s.

But I quibble. This suspenseful and beautifully written work about World War II will inevitably give rise to reflections not only about the story it ostensibly recounts, but also about today’s children of war.

The Children’s War

by Monique Charlesworth

Review published in

November 27, 2004

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