*This review contains spoilers*
When Felix sits down to an uninspiring bowl of soup he is stunned to discover a whole carrot. He hides it in his pocket for fear of causing a riot. This is how the extraordinary Once begins. An English A Level teacher gave me this to read to provide an alternative insight into war literature. This is one of the few books that nearly made me cry and I was curious to know how it would affect me ten years later.
Written by Morris Gleitzman for older children Once takes place in wartime Poland and is told entirely from the point of view of the young Felix. Set in 1942 Felix has been kept away from the war until now. His parents left him in the care of Mother Minka, in a Catholic orphanage in the mountains of Poland. It is when they pray “to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler” that the reader knows that this will be a different type of story and that for Felix, the world he left behind three years and eight months ago is has almost been erased.
Felix’s imagination serves a barrier between himself and the horrors of the world. It is his imagination has protected him from so much over the years and his ability to conjure stories from thin air saves Felix and his friends over and over again. Early into his journey Felix hears gunfire and assumes the Nazis must be hunting rabbits. The spare prose makes the reader shiver. “Look at that. The river has suddenly turned red. Which is a bit strange, because the sunset is still yellow. The water’s so red it almost looks like blood. But even with all those gunshots, the hunters couldn’t have killed that many rabbits. Could they? No, it must just be a trick of the light”.
The reader has so much more knowledge than Felix does that at times this book is heart breaking. His path through life evokes fear in the reader, and yet for the most part he does not feel the same fear. At times Felix sees awful things. Gleitzman should be credited for not shying away from the darkness of the period. Seeing these things through the eyes of the child strips away the history and politics and shows them for what they are.
When Felix finds a man and a woman lying dead, still in their nightclothes, their house aflame, he reasons that they must have been Jewish booksellers who put up a fight to protect their books. Their young daughter Zelda however has survived. She joins Felix on his journey to find his parents. They end up joining a convoy being marched into the ghetto. Here they meet other children hiding from the clear outs. Looked after by Barney, a dentist who survives by treating the soldiers in the ghetto, they carve out a life in a cellar, only venturing out after curfew. When Felix has the chance to save himself he chooses instead to join his friends. This is how he finds himself being loaded onto a train that will carry him and hundreds of others to their deaths.
Felix does not die, nor does Zelda. They are some of the few to escape. Barney stayed behind with the children who didn’t want to take their chances and jump. When they hug goodbye Felix feels the needles in Barney’s pockets. It is here that he realises that if needs be Barney will inject the children with an anaesthetic that if used in sufficient quantities will put them into a sleep they will not awaken from in order to protect them from the advancing horror. This is portrayed as a moment of mercy and kindness, as a man is prepared to go to his death in order to spare the children any suffering. Here Felix finally understands what sort of world he is living in. It may sound strange but this is beautifully portrayed and leads up to the books final few lines, “I’ll never forget how lucky I am. Barney said everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.”
It is important to emphasise that Once is suffused with hope and moments of friendship and kindness. Although deeply sad Gleitzman also shows how imagination can save, how unlikely friendships can grow in the most unusual circumstances and how, in the form of dentist Barney, humanity and decency will always survive. Once also suggests that innocence can be lost, not just from children but also from adults. A man who once lived alongside Felix’s family has become too scared to help the boy when he returns to his home village. A Nazi officer takes a story home for his young daughter the same day that he ushers Jewish children into trains to be taken away. A young girls parents are murdered by Polish partisans. The ending is a wonderful mix of the hope, fear and devastating sadness.
Although technically a children’s book there is much here for adults too, who will approach Felix’s story with the knowledge of the atrocities and heartbreak that boys like Felix witnessed, but will perhaps still be surprised and uplifted by the hopeful ending, and the feeling that as life continues, there is always a chance.
Once, Morris Gleitzman, Puffin, 2005, Australia