Perhaps, in order to be able to understand someone's pain, you have to have experienced something like it already yourself? If you've been in a car accident yourself, do you understand better when someone tells you about their accident? It helps, I think. You can comfort each other.
That is how it is for Richard when his mother unexpectedly abandons the family and disappears without trace. Richard falls into conversation with their old Polish neighbour, Stefan Wassilewski. When Stefan was Richard's age, he was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night by a Russian soldier, herded onto a crowded refugee train along with his mother and younger brother, and transported thousands of miles across Europe to Kazakhstan.
Of all the apalling hardships that Stefan endured with his mother and brother the one that he never really recovered from was the separation from them as they attempted to board a crowded refugee train in Uzbekistan. Stefan never saw them again. Of course, Stefan's remorse is compounded by the knowledge that he deliberately abandoned them. Perhaps he could have jumped from the moving train when he realised they would not be able to board. In Stefan's case, though, no one judges him half so harshly as he judges himself. During those years of the Second World War and immediately afterwards the whole of Europe was awash with thousands of desperate refugees. Countless numbers of families were separated and never found each other again.
So, Stefan and Richard can share the pain of separation. As Richard listens to Stefan's uncompromising account of his life he begins to understand a little of his own feelings, and those of his mother who has deliberately abandoned him. There is, it seems, one place where everyone can meet even when they are separated by war, time and distance: under the stars. Just think of Stefan's mum on the plains of Kazakhstan. She has lost her husband and four other children. Stefan says:
When I awake a little later, scratching because of the lice, I see that she has got up and is sitting out alone in the night. She is gazing up to the stars above. In that half-light, I cannot see the lines that now spoil her tired face. She is almost beautiful.
'"I hope," she says, when I touch her arm, "all we can hope is that wherever they are, they too can still look up and see the stars."
An emotional story, all the more so because it reflects the real experiences of many thousands of children during the Second World War.
What can I read next?
Gaye Hicyilmaz has written another excellent book which deals with modern Romanian refugees arriving in the UK:
If you are interested in the massive movement of people across the wastes of post-war Europe you might enjoy this one by Ian Serraillier:
Also, for older readers, this true account of life in a Nazi concentration camp by Livia Bitton-Jackson:
Bernard Ashley deals with the difficulty of settling in a foreign land as a refugee and starting a new life in this excellent book:
Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:
- Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (Score: 89%)
- Hitler's Daughter by Jackie French (Score: 89%)
- Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (Score: 86%)
- The Last Wolf by Michael Morpurgo (Score: 86%)
- Parvana's Journey by Deborah Ellis (Score: 82%)
And The Stars Were Gold features in these lists: