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A Difficult Journey

A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik (Scholastic, $18.50)
Review by Nikki Slade Robinson

Awinter'sdayAdam is 12 and living with his family in rural 1939 Poland… but not for long. Their home isn’t far from the Soviet border. When the Soviet Red Army invades Poland, Adam’s family is one of many uprooted and transported to Russian labour camps.

It is a harsh existence: appalling living conditions, freezing temperatures, illnesses, a severe shortage of food, and the ever-present enemy. It’s a challenge to survive each day, let alone try to stay together as a family.

This young-adult story, while fictional, is closely based on Melinda Szymanik’s father’s recollections of his family’s experiences in 1939 Poland and the USSR: ‘My father was 12 when the Soviet Red Army invaded eastern Poland, where he lived, in 1939. His family was transported from Poland to a labour camp in Russia in 1940. Their experiences… form the basis of this novel, and a lot of the things that happen to Adam and those close to him happened to my father and his family and friends.’

Auckland-based Szymanik, who writes for children and young adults, has had stories published in several journals and anthologies. Szymanik wrote junior novel Jack the Viking when she was in the New Zealand Society of Author’s mentoring programme from 2005-06, was twice short-listed for the Joy Cowley Award in 2003 and 2006, and has many other titles to her name.

Her latest character, Adam, is a believable, three-dimensional character. It’s easy to fall in step alongside him on his journey across the USSR – and his journey from 12-year-old child to early adolescence:

‘”You mollycoddle him, Teresa,” Father said… “He needs to grow up – be a man.”
His words stung. If they said anything else, I didn’t hear it. My cheeks burned with anger and shame.’
Father pulled me aside. “I’m very proud of you, son,” he said.’

Horrendous atrocities were committed across Europe during these years. Atrocities that shouldn’t be forgotten. This book handles this aspect sensitively, giving just enough information so as not to hide what happened, yet remaining restrained enough on detail to avoid being gory or inappropriate for the intended reading age:

‘By the time the train stopped she didn’t recognise her husband or her two children…. The officer returned with two of his comrades and they lifted the woman off the train. Her husband tried to follow with their two children, and we all watched silent, stunned as the officer pointed his pistol at them.
“You must stay on the train,” he barked.
Before anyone could do anything the door slid shut. No one spoke…’

Will Adam and his family survive intact?

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is well-written, absorbing and convincingly realistic. It is sombre, but not depressing. Despite the difficulties faced by Adam and his family, they don’t lose hope, and as a reader, I remained hopeful with them. I wanted them to reach a safe place, to begin a new life together. I cared about them.

A good read? Definitely. I would position this title alongside other notable titles like In the Sea there are Crocodiles (winner of the Marsh Award) by Fabio Geda/ translated by Howard Curtis – also a story about children’s experiences and difficult journeys.