Book Review: A Winter’s Day in 1939, by Melinda Szymanik

cv_a_winters_day_in_1939This book is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, in the Junior Fiction section. It is available at bookstores nationwide, and we have a giveaway of this book on our Facebook page.

I had my pick of the finalists of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and I am pleased that I picked this one up! It isn’t my usual reading material, but it was a very interesting insight into a part of the European war history that I wasn’t completely aware of.

This book is based on the true story of Melinda’s father, who was, along with his family, taken from his home in Poland by the USSR and placed into a series of camps in Russia. Run of course by socialist principles, those over 14 worked for a small wage, while the children were left to their own devices. If this was all, it would be a very short story – but  the problem of what to do with these displaced Poles became a saga, with the family crossing thousands of miles to several different camps around Russia.

At the beginning of the war, Hitler had a deal with Stalin to stay out of the USSR, in return for their help in clearing some of the pesky Eastern Europeans out of their countries so he had an easy run. Stalin was happy to oblige, but all this changed in June 1941 when Hitler pushed on into Mother Russia. Suddenly, the Poles were allies and the able-bodied men and women were given the opportunity to sign up for the displaced Polish army.

The book highlights the psychological and physical impacts that World War 2 had on civilians who were deemed to be in the way. Being transplanted from your homeland and having your property and all you own removed from you was only the beginning. The effects of living in close quarters in camps ruled by those who only knew their orders created problems with disease and starvation on a massive scale. There were approximately 6 million Polish civilians killed through ‘crimes to humanity’, as well as through  famine and disease. The cost to the Polish population as a whole was higher than the cost to any other population in the world (stats from Wikipedia).

While this could be grim handled the wrong way, Melinda tackles it from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy, and though of course he observes all this, she manages it without making the family’s plight seem at all hopeless. Through everything, the boy enjoys relationships with animals big and small, as a way of keeping his mind off the real atrocities happening around him. The protagonist is determined to survive, and to ensure his family survives, and he learns a lot about human behaviour along the way.  Melinda is a very skilled observer of family relationships, and this is what really brings the book to a higher level.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a well-written book, perfectly pitched for the junior fiction audience. I would like to encourage everybody with a child in this age range to encourage their child to read it, for entertainment as well as for the subject matter.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

A Winter’s Day in 1939
by Melinda Szymanik
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775430308

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