World War II: 1945, Poland. The Germans are in retreat, but Nazi death squads are still hunting down Jews. Thirteen-year-old Felix is in hiding, protected by Gabriek, a Pole who occasionally works with the partisans. When Gabriek disappears, Felix and Dom, the pony whose stable he’s been hiding in, go in search of the partisans hiding in the forest. Will the partisans take him and Dom in, or will they kill them?
I loved this book. Felix’s parents have been taken to a death camp; he has seen people beaten, brutalized and murdered, he is in great danger himself, yet, somehow, he manages to retain his basic human decency and hold onto hope. His first-person narrative allows us an insight into how he does it. The pony Dom is a sort of empathetic alter ego. Dom’s sympathy enables Felix to feel raw emotion without being overwhelmed by it because he knows that Dom understands.
Felix also knows that children need parents. He has been orphaned, but he is instinctively wise enough to choose himself worthy surrogates in Gabriek and Yuli. He learns that in a situation where humanity is stripped down to the bone, when all that’s left is your name, you must choose whether you will be a kind and decent human being, even in such horrific circumstances, or someone who can only feel hatred – a destroyer. Not only is the choice a difficult one, it must constantly renewed. The partisan Szulk, whose parents were also killed by the Nazis, chooses to destroy; Felix chooses to be a ‘mending person’.
After was short-listed for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award, and one can understand why. I was totally gripped – when I wasn’t in tears. Morris Gleitzman has written a very special book. Highly recommended for children of 11 plus.