The Children’s War
Toward the end of this novel, Ilse, its main protagonist, comments on reading about wars, emperors, warriors, and battles, saying, “Nobody tells you what happened to the children.” That topic—the effect of war on society’s youngest and weakest—is what Monique Charlesworth, author of three other novels, seeks to address in her latest work.
Beginning in the spring of 1939, the story introduces us to thirteen-year-old Ilse, a German-Jewish girl, whom her mother sends away to safety. Ilse is on her way to Morocco, a country she will love immediately and where, unfortunately, she will not be able to stay. Her tale alternates with that of a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth, Nicolai, who is back in Hamburg. As the war progresses, Ilse and Nicolai have to deal with growing up, and with persecution and cruelty.
In less adept hands, the shifting back and forth between the two protagonists might have been a problem. It is not. The novel moves easily from Ilse to Nicolai, illustrating their perilous worlds, their disappointments and fears, showing us how they come to grips with abandonment, carnage, and less than perfect parents. The nightmarish depiction of the bombardment and destruction of Hamburg and the sorrowful account of the steps that led French Jews to concentration camps could have also made this just another depressing story of economic and psychological devastation. But somehow it’s not. Ms. Charlesworth infuses the pages with compassion, courage, and hope.