Thursday 11 June 2015

No stars at the circus by Mary Finn

No stars at the circus: to hide is to survive by Mary Finn (Walker Books, 2014)

ISBN 978-1-4063-4733-3

Chapters (unnumbered) each about 4-5 pgs long; 266 pages

Subjects: World War Two, France, Paris, Jews, circus, family, deaf, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Ten-year-old Jonas Alber lives in Paris with his father (a watchmaker and jeweller), his mother (a former pianist) and his younger sister Nadia, who is deaf. When the Germans occupy the city, the family is forced to leave behind their shop and their home and move to another part of town. Jonas makes friends with an Italian family who are part of a circus troupe, and by chance, he is staying with them during the night of 16 July 1942, known as la Rafle, when thousands of Jewish men, women and children were rounded up. Jonas finds out later that these people were held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel’ d’Hiv for short) for several days and eventually sent eastwards. He doesn’t know what has happened to them after that (and it’s possible he will never know.)  

By another lucky chance, his mother has slipped into his pocket the address of her former piano teacher, and when it becomes too dangerous for him to stay with the circus folk, he is smuggled into the Professor’s house. “We just don’t know where the boy’s family was sent to. We became his second family," says Signor Corrado. "Now, Monsieur, I’m asking you to be his third.”

Jonas lives in hiding in an attic and keeps a diary in a series of notebooks, until even the Professor’s house is not safe any more and a new plan has to be made for him. 

Jonas’ family life is lovingly drawn, and his parents’ care and concern for their children in the privations of war is easy to see. A lot is made of the special sign language that the family has developed to be able to communicate with Nadia.  I kept expecting this to play some crucial part in the plot, but when it was finally used, it was a bit of a letdown as the same information was soon afterwards delivered in spoken form.  

An afterword explains some of the historical facts on which the story is based. The chance meeting between Jonas and the circus folk seems a bit too coincidental; however, Mary Finn explains that “the circus, if not perhaps my Italians, was real, even during the Occupation of Paris. I found it in wartime photographs taken by Robert Doisneau… and others.”

After all, many events in life do stem from a chance encounter – and after this first meeting, the events that follow are steered by Jonas’ own character. It is because he is the sort of boy he is – outgoing, curious, engaging, interested in the world – that the circus performers respond to him, become fond of him, include him in their routines and call on him when they need help – and are then able to help him in turn. 

The author is good at showing us only what Jonas knows, or can understand, and his ten-year-old voice (with its occasional asides and jokes) is very convincing. The relationship between him and the Professor is also a significant part of the story.

The lovereading4kids site includes a summary which is also available elsewhere.  And here is another review on the Snuggling on the sofa blog (nice name!) 

Author’s website
This interview was published in Lovereading4kids for the publication of Mary Finn’s debut novel, Anila’s journey“Mary Finn worked for years as a magazine journalist with Radio Telefis Eireann, the Irish Broadcasting service. She lives in Dublin with her son and works as a freelance writer. Ten Things you didn’t know about Mary Finn include the fact that she and her son once met Roald Dahl in Galway.

Another interview on Gobblefunked talks about the inspiration for and process of writing the book. She also talks about exactly which parts of Paris in her book (streets, parks and statues) are real. "But the original prompt for my story came when I saw the plaques erected on so many school walls, in the centre of Paris as throughout France. These remember the Jewish pupils, seized by the Nazis, who never returned to their schools."

Other books you might like
My book Lighthouse familyset in WW2, also includes a deaf sibling: Frances' younger brother Stephen. I found out during my research for this book that the use of sign language was frowned on at the time, at least in the New Zealand of the 1940s. Deaf children were encouraged to rely on lip reading, but in schools for the deaf they would use sign language out of sight of the teachers.

NZ connections
New Zealand even gets a mention here! Jonas has little to read except for an encyclopaedia, where he reads about basking sharks, salmon and albatrosses that “go to places like New Zealand” to lay their eggs and “lay them near a cliff so the first thing the chick will see when it hatches is the ocean.”

Things I didn’t know
Every time I read a children’s book set in war time, I pick up some new snippet of information. I’ve recently read Suite Francaise, by Irène Némirovsky  (1903-1942) about life in France under German occupation. I probably won’t review it here as it’s not a children’s book (although some young adults might read it) but it contains detailed descriptions of the panicked flight from Paris that so many people undertook. However, even that book didn’t include this detail of the “cloud of black smoke” that drifted over Paris and “rained black rain”, because the car factories on the outskirts of the city were burning.

Flea circuses are a real thing, with a long history! (Did you know a flea can jump 30,000 times without a break?)  (Who counted??)

La Rafle: this article in the NY Times points out how the round-up of Parisian Jews was planned for the night of 14 July, until it was realised that Bastille Day might not be the best date to choose.

There is a memorial at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel’ d’Hiv for short)

Paris, France.  Monument to the Victims of the Deportation to the Velodrome d'Hiver byWalter Spitzer, dedicated 1994. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012.
Robert Doisneau is mentioned by Mary Finn as a wartime photographer whose most famous photograph, taken in 1950 for Life magazine, is “Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville (The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville). This article tells the story behind the photo, including law suits and disputed identities. You can see the famous photo and read more about him here.

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

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