Stay Where You Are and Then Leave

Written by John Boyne
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

London, 1914. It is Alfie Summerfield’s fifth birthday, and news has just broken that fighting has started in France. World War I is about to begin, and Alfie’s world will change forever. His father joins up; his mother struggles to make ends meet; his best friend, Kalena Janáček, and her father, who runs the corner shop, are interned as possible spies – they are Jews from Prague; and Joe Patience, the conscientious objector from over the road, is flung into prison.

Four years later, something awful happens to Alfie’s father, but nobody will tell him what. The story is that he’s on a secret mission, but Alfie doesn’t believe it. By chance, whilst shining shoes at King’s Cross station, he discovers that his father is in hospital near Ipswich. What is the matter with him? What Alfie discovers is both frightening and heartbreaking. But how can he rescue his father away from this terrible place?

This moving and uplifting story is also about the devastating effect of blindly following old rigid ways of thinking, where ‘shell shock’ is another word for cowardice; where people with foreign names suddenly become hated German spies – even if they’ve been neighbours for years; and where conscientious objectors deserve to be beaten up. In 1914, most men in Alfie’s road joined up with patriotic fervour. Four years later, many of them were dead, maimed, or suffering from traumatic stress disorder. When the Janáčeks return to their trashed house, they can’t wait to leave Britain. In Prague, they think, they’ll be safe. But they are Jewish, and we know what fate probably awaits them.

This is an emotionally complex book, and young readers need to have the maturity to understand how ordinary people could hate those who were different in some way. Recommended for thoughtful children of twelve plus.