Once & Then

Written by Morris Gleitzman
Review by Gwen Sly

Once & Then was originally two books, coming together for the first time in this edition. Initially, you feel it is a child’s book, which is not surprising as Morris Gleitzman is primarily such an author. This, however, is a story about a child having to grow up before his time.

Felix is ten and has spent most of the past four years in a catholic orphanage in the mountains of Poland. It is 1942, and his Jewish parents placed him there for safekeeping. It has been a time of loneliness, his lifeline a copy of the Just William Stories by Richmal Compton. One day the Nazis arrive and burn the books in the library – an unforgivable sin in the eyes of a child brought up in a bookshop. Felix begins to question the ideology preached by the local priest who places Adolph Hitler in the same panoply as Jesus and Mary. Running away, Felix literally walks into the brutality of the holocaust. His belief that one day his mother and father will return mentally protects him from the escalating horrors of the deportation of the Jewish community to the death camps.

This is a crafted and compelling novel of hope in a period of terrible cruelty and uncertainty. There are touches of humour amongst the pathos, as the author writes with the imagination of a child who has a gift for storytelling, and the effect is powerful. The ending is abrupt as Felix, a diverse and motivated character full of charm, intelligence and bravery is deprived of Now – the third story he so richly deserves.