The ideas behind the books
About 'I am David' by Anne Holm
What is this book actually about? I get asked about this book more than any other on the whole list, by both adults and children alike. It seems to be used as a class reader in schools all over the world, from America, to Australia and Canada and the UK.
When I was preparing my review of this book for readingmatters I was quite confused about the background. I wrote to some children's literature academics who I was in correspondence with at the time. These were my questions:
Has anyone read I Am David by Anne Holm? And can anyone tell me what it is about? I can't place the setting - is it set in a real political situation, or is it just vaguely Cold War-ish? I'm not even clear who 'they' are. Are they Russian or, since David had to head south for Salonica, perhaps 'they' are Bulgarian? or Greek? Arguably, it doesn't matter, but I'm one of those people who likes to know the background to a book and its author.
Is the book principally a vehicle for religious speculation? A sermon on standards of morality? Because of his background David has an unusually intense character, and lends himself well to philosophical theory. The story itself is a strange collection of unlikely coincidences, and so not very satisfying as an adventure.
No-one answered, so I conclude that no one had a considered opinion on this text, or that no one could be bothered to discuss it, except one chap who said he thought David was a Jew and the book was about the Holocaust. I replied:
Yes, the action of the story takes place after 1953 because he asks if there is a king in England and is told that there is a queen with a beautiful crown. David is 12 though and he was 1 when he was arrested. Could he have been taken in 1942 by, say, the Russians and still be held 11 years later? Did that happen to people in Russian concentration camps? Is this what Anne Holm is drawing our attention to? The book was written in 1963 so the Cold War was at its height.
I don't know if David is Jewish. We are told that before they were arrested he and his parents lived abroad in a country where the political situation made it necessary to be very careful - and his father wasn't. That's all. It doesn't even really follow that he was arrested during the war. He could have been arrested in 1946, couldn't he?
Do you think it is meant to be a real political situation, or just a synthesis of everything bad that happened during those years?
That was the end of the conversation. He didn't respond. So I am no wiser.
But here are my thoughts, for now.
The story is most likely set in Bulgaria, and 'they' are communists. During the Second World War Bulgaria at first sided with the Nazis but although Bulgaria later tried to change sides, this was not enough to stop Russia from invading Bulgaria. The communist occupation was ruthless and totalitarian. There were many purges, and dissidents were sent to dreadful concentration camps during the Cold War period.
The geographical argument for Bulgaria is simple. David is told to travel south by the compass until he reaches Salonica (Thessaloniki), which places him in Bulgaria, or possibly Yugoslavia, part of which was administered by Bulgaria from 1941.
From the point of view of the story, it makes no difference at all exactly where David's concentration camp is situated. As time passes and international politics change readers will inevitably apply their own contemporary interpretations. That is why 'they' are merely 'they'.
Is David Jewish? Johannes tells David in Chapter 2 that he is sure David is not Jewish. Perhaps Johannes knows for certain that David is not circumcised. Or perhaps Johannes knew David's parents. One of the earliest tasks David gives himself is to choose his own God. He rejects the Jewish God because he feels that if you are not Jewish, perhaps you have no right to choose him. He also rejects Catholicism, because he knows nothing about Mary, or any other woman for that matter. But he does remember a story that Johannes told him about a man, also called David, who had lived a long time ago:
Suddenly it came back to him. That other David had said of his God, 'He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters.'
He was the one he would choose!
That other David became King of Israel but always remained faithful to God. Perhaps David's journey in this book is in some way intended to reflect the psalms that we see in the Bible written by that other David. Of course, Moslems, Jews and Christians all believe in the God of David. That is why David is called David in this story.
I am not a religious scholar, and this argument satisfies me as far as it goes. Perhaps there is more to say?
But I cannot totally avoid all reference to the Holocaust. The Jews are of the tribe of David. The central image of this story is a journey. The tribe of David have been on a journey ever since they took exile from Egypt. This book was written shortly after the Second World War when Europe was awash with shame and guilt at the crimes that had been committed against humanity in general, but the Jews in particular. Zionism was by no means a new idea, but during the post-war period when the state of Israel was created there must have been an overwhelming impression of the Jews coming home. Perhaps their sense of relief at their homecoming was something like David's homecoming in this story? If ever a comment needed to be made on freedom of thought and religion, perhaps this was the moment. Whether Anne Holm makes it work is for you to decide.
It's taken me ages to come to terms with this book. Thank you to everyone who has written to me with very valuable comments. Delighted to hear from you!
Read the review of I Am David