What’s it all about?:
The day the First World War broke out, Alfie Summerfield’s father promised he wouldn’t go away to fight – but he broke that promise the following day. Four years later, Alfie doesn’t know where his father might be, other than that he’s away on a special, secret mission.
Then, while shining shoes at King’s Cross Station, Alfie unexpectedly sees his father’s name – on a sheaf of papers belonging to a military doctor. Bewildered and confused, Alfie realises his father is in a hospital close by – a hospital treating soldiers with an unusual condition. Alfie is determined to rescue his father from this strange, unnerving place . . .
What did I think?:
I was already pre-disposed to like this novel having read a few of the authors other works, including his arguably most famous novel The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (if you haven’t read it yet, why not?!). Furthermore, after reading the synopsis and learning that it was set in the horrific time period that was the First World War, I had no doubt that the author would do it justice and attract many new readers/fans in the process. Our main character is a young five year old boy called Alfie Summerfield who begs his father not to leave the family and fight, a promise broken by his father the very next day which understandably, devastates him.
Fast forward four years to an entirely different family dynamic. Alfie’s mother, Margie works hard and long hours to try and put food on their table but somehow it just never seems to be enough. Alfie takes it upon himself to cut school and shine shoes at King’s Cross station to try and bring in some extra money and keep the small family’s head above water. There has been no word from Alfie’s father during this time, although Margie reassures Alfie that his father is on a special secret mission where he is unable to contact them. Alfie accepts this fact although slightly sceptical, yet his world falls apart when one day after shining a military doctors shoes, he notices his fathers name on a list of the doctors patients who are in hospital in England.
Alfie becomes determined to travel to the hospital by any means to discover the truth about his father in the hope that he can bring him home so that they can all be a family again. Life, as we know, is not that simple and Alfie is horrified to discover that the father he comes across is not the father that he remembers. Georgie Summerfield is suffering from extreme shell shock and is not making much progress, not even recognising his own son. Yet with a bravery beyond his young years Alfie is hell-bent on a mission to try and make his father better and return him to the home where he belongs.
This was such a beautiful novel from John Boyne that I thoroughly enjoyed and can picture being read and taught to children for many years to come. I loved the sensitive way in which the war was written about i.e. not overly graphic but with enough information for younger readers so that they do not feel in any way patronised. Also, I’m really glad that the author tackled the subject of shell shock – a trauma often overlooked or undermined by the medical profession at that time (and sometimes even now!). It was also interesting to read about the men who were treated and labelled as cowards either for running from the trenches, not fighting at all or being from a different and therefore suspect culture. This was a novel so thoughtfully presented and brilliantly executed that I’m certain it will stay with me for a long time to come.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):