Children's Literature - Jeanne K. Pettenati J.D.
Stephie and Nellie leave their home and parents Vienna to live with foster families in Sweden while their parents await visas to leave Nazi-occupied Austria. Seven-year-old Nellie adapts quickly to life in Sweden, enjoying time with her foster siblings and new friends at school. Twelve-year-old Stephie is shunned by most of her classmates and lonely in her foster home. As World War II escalates, the girls realize that the short separation from their parents they had anticipated will now stretch on. The fascinating plot and believable characters are drawn from a chapter of World War II history. Five hundred Jewish children were brought into Sweden from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia during the war. Sweden accepted the Jewish children, but did not grant any visas to their adult parents. An author's note at the back of the book provides additional facts about this chapter in Swedish history and the author's interest in the topic. This novel is the first of four in a series, and the books were used to create a program for Swedish television. The story is valuable as a historical snapshot, and it remains relevant today when so many families are displaced and separated because of war and natural disasters. Reviewer: Jeanne K. Pettenati, J.D.
The author, Annika Thor, based Stephie and Nellie's experiences on interviews she conducted with some of the 500 Jews who found refuge in Sweden as children during World War II, along with stories from her own family. She unobtrusively brings the reader into full alignment with Stephie…The first of four novels that have been widely published abroad, A Faraway Island concludes after Norway has been invaded and Stephie's parents have asked her to help get them visas to Sweden. Readers will want to know what happens next for the characters in this powerful series.
The New York Times
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—In this gripping story, Stephie and Nellie, two Austrian Jewish sisters, are evacuated in 1938 from Vienna to a Swedish island and placed in separate foster homes. Twelve-year-old Stephie has promised her parents that she will try to ease her younger sister's way, a burdensome promise to keep. Auntie Alma, Nellie's Swedish mother, is warmer and more welcoming than Auntie Märta, Stephie's more austere foster parent. At first it seems that Nellie will have a more difficult time adjusting, but the opposite happens. Loneliness and a sense of isolation engulf Stephie. The shunning and taunting of cliquish, bigoted girls intensify her longing for home and the familiar, but Stephie bravely perseveres, bolstered by the hope that she will only be separated from her parents for a short time. Unfortunately this does not happen, and the girls must remain on this faraway island. Children will readily empathize with Stephie's courage. Both sisters are well-drawn, likable characters. This is the first of four books Thor has written about the two girls. It is an excellent companion to Lois Lowry's Number the Stars (Houghton, 1989), Kit Pearson's The Sky Is Falling (Viking, 1990; o.p.), and Olga Levy Drucker's Kindertransport (Holt, 1995).—Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ
At the onset of World War II, Jewish Stephanie and her younger sister, Nellie, are sent to a Swedish island to live with separate host families while they await their parents' visas to America. Even after the turmoil of Vienna, Stephie struggles with separation from her sister and living with strict Aunt Marta in lonely isolation, while Nellie quickly finds friends and comfort. As time passes and her Swedish improves, Stephie learns more about why her circumstances are more difficult than Nellie's. While the parents encounter multiple barriers to reuniting the family, some small adjustments are made in the girls' daily lives to ease their situation. The increasing involvement of Sweden in the war provides a commonality between the girls and the villagers, allowing Stephie to look outside her pain to find an inner strength and determination that she never knew she had. Straightforwardly told in the present tense and easier for tender hearts than the brutal stories of concentration camps, this still conveys the reality of war and the suffering of those displaced by it. (Historical fiction. 9-14)
VOYA - Jennifer Rummel
As the Germans advance, children flee Austria including two Jewish sisters, Stephie and Nellie, who travel to Sweden to escape the Nazis. They must leave behind their parents, their friends, and everything they have ever known. At first, Stephie and Nellie think they will only be in Sweden a few months until their parents can make their way to Amsterdam before traveling to America together. Nothing goes as planned; the sisters end up separated in two houses and must learn to acclimate into a Christian society. This first book in a quartet is based on interviews of child refugees as well as the author's own family history. The story begins with the girls traveling to their new home and ends with the Germans declaring war on Denmark and Norway. Nazis, bullies, and strangers shape the world of these two sisters as they learn a new language, deal with prejudices, and try to understand the world. Thor also includes an author's note where she discusses her personal connection to the story as well as facts behind the "children's transports." Thor pens a tale of historical fiction in a harsh world that will hook readers and transcend time. Although the story pertains to the World War II era, the plight of these girls could easily be imagined for refugees in any crisis. Reviewer: Jennifer Rummel
Read an Excerpt
The train slows to a halt. A voice over a loudspeaker shouts in an unknown language.
Stephie presses her nose to the window. Through the steam from the locomotive, she sees a sign and, farther down, a brick building with a glass roof.
"Are we there, Stephie?" Nellie asks anxiously. "Is this where we get off?"
"I'm not sure," Stephie answers, "but I think so."
She stands up on the seat to reach the luggage rack, lifting Nellie's suitcase down first, then her own. Their school knapsacks are on the floor at their feet. They must be sure not to leave anything on the train. This is all they were allowed to bring with them, and it is very little indeed.
A lady in a summer suit and hat appears in the doorway of their compartment. She addresses them in German.
"Hurry, hurry," she says. "This is Goteborg. Our destination."
The lady moves along to the next compartment without waiting for an answer.
Stephie pulls on her own knapsack, then helps her sister. "Take your suitcase!" she says.
"It's so heavy," Nellie complains, lifting it anyway. Hand in hand, they walk out into the train corridor. There are already a number of children gathered, all eager to disembark.
Soon the station platform is crowded with children and luggage. Behind them, the train pulls away, thudding and squealing. Some of the smaller children are crying. One little boy is calling for his mamma.
"Your mamma's not here," Stephie tells him. "She can't come to you. But you'll be getting a new mother here, one who's just as nice."
"Mamma, mamma," the little boy wails. The lady in the summer suit lifts him up and carries him.
"Come along," she says to the other children. "Follow me."
They walk behind her in a line like ducklings and enter the station, the building with the high, arched glass roof. A man with a big camera moves toward them. The sudden flash is blinding. One of the smaller children screams.
"Stop it, mister," the lady escorting them says curtly. "You're frightening the young ones."
The man goes on taking pictures anyway.
"This is my job, lady," he says. "Yours is to look after the poor little refugee children. Mine is to take the heartbreaking pictures so you'll get more money to do your work."
He takes a few more shots.
Stephie turns her face away. She doesn't want to be a refugee child in a heartbreaking picture in some magazine. She doesn't want to be someone people have to give money for.
The lady leads them to the far end of a large waiting area, part of which has been cordoned off and is full of grown-ups. An older woman with glasses moves toward them.
"Welcome to Sweden," she says. "We are so glad you got here safely. We represent the local relief committee. You'll be safe here until you can be reunited with your parents."
This lady speaks German, too, but with a funny accent.
A younger woman takes out a list and begins calling names: "Ruth Baumann . . . Stephan Fischer . . . Eva Goldberg . . ."
Every time she calls a name, a child raises his or her hand, then walks over to the lady with the list. The lady double-checks the name against the brown name tags that the child, like all the other children, has hanging from his or her neck. One of the adults who've been waiting steps forward, takes the child, and departs. The children who are too small to respond to the roll call are pointed out and collected from their bench.
The list is in alphabetical order, so Stephie realizes she and Nellie will have a long wait. Her stomach is aching with hunger, and her whole body longs for a bed to stretch out on. The crowded railway compartment has been their home since early yesterday morning. The miles and miles of track have carried them all the way from Vienna, Austria, far from Mamma and Papa. The rails were a link between them. Now the girls have been cut off. They're all alone.
Slowly the groups of children and adults begin to dwindle. Nellie cuddles up to Stephie.
"When will it be our turn, Stephie? Isn't there anybody here for us?"
"They haven't come to S yet," Stephie explains. "We have to wait."
"I'm so hungry," Nellie whines. "And so tired. And so very hungry."
"There's nothing left to eat," Stephie informs her. "We finished our sandwiches ages ago. You'll have to be patient until we get to where we're going. Sit down on your suitcase if you're too tired to stand."
Nellie sits down on her little case, chin in hands. Her long black braids reach nearly to the floor.
"Nellie, I'll bet we're going to be living in a real palace," Stephie says, trying to comfort her sister. "With zillions of rooms. And a view of the sea."
"Will I have my own bedroom?" Nellie asks.
"Sure," Stephie promises.
"Oh, no," Nellie moans. "I'd rather share with you."
"Eleonore Steiner," Stephie hears the lady call out.
"That's you! Say 'Here,' " Stephie whispers.
"Eleonore Steiner," the lady with the list repeats. "Come forward!"
Stephie pulls Nellie along, zigzagging between pieces of luggage. "We're here," she says.
The lady looks back down at her list. "Stephanie Steiner?" she asks.
"Steiner," the lady repeats loudly. "Eleonore and Stephanie Steiner!"
No grown-up comes forward.
"Stephie," asks Nellie, her voice trembling, "doesn't anybody want us?"
Stephie doesn't answer, just clutches Nellie's hand tightly. The lady with the list turns to her.
"You'll have to wait a bit longer," she says, moving the two sisters to the side. "If you'll just stand here, I'll be back shortly."
The older woman takes over the roll call. After a while, all the other children are gone. Stephie and Nellie are alone with their suitcases.
"Can we go home now?" asks Nellie. "Back to Mamma and Papa?"
Stephie shakes her head. Nellie begins to cry.
"Shhh," Stephie hisses. "Don't start blubbering, now. You're not a crybaby, are you?"
Heels clatter against the marble floor. Footsteps approach. The younger woman quickly explains something to the older one. She takes a pen out of her bag and writes on Stephie and Nellie's name tags: These children do not speak Swedish.
"Come along," she says to Stephie. "I'm going to take you to the boat."
Stephie takes her suitcase in one hand and Nellie by the other. Silently, they follow the lady out of the station.
From the Trade Paperback edition.