Wartime, Amsterdam. Things are pretty bleak for Lena. The whole of Amsterdam is slowly starving to death, her only friend Sarah, who happens to be Jewish, has disappeared, and her mother has just had another baby. So when the opportunity arises for Lena to leave Amsterdam and go to Almelo on a hunger journey with her new friend Sofie, she decides to leave everything behind, hoping that things can’t possibly get any worse. They do, naturally, and Lena learns a number of hard lessons about love, sex, friendship, and survival.
Gentle readers be warned; there is so sugar-coating or romanticizing of the war. The authenticity of this book is compelling but it is this same gritty realism that makes it hard to read at times. Many WWII books use the war as a backdrop to explore the strength of the human spirit or demonstrate humanity and acts of good in a chaotic, evil time. Not so in Hunger Journeys. The atmosphere in this book gets under your skin and leaves you feeling chilled. Even the sections in which we get a glimpse into the resistance and see the people who refuse to accept the Nazi regime are not glorified. Author Maggie de Vries is especially effective in creating a cold, bleak portrait of people struggling under occupation.
Lena herself is a relunctant hero. She admires the work of the resistance and the passion of her brother in particular, who is desperate to be involved, but she can’t imagine taking on such dangerous work herself. Even when she joins the resistance, it is fearfully, without fanfare, and the resulting deliveries she makes are fraught with anxiety. It is refreshing to read about a reluctant resistance worker, rather than the bold, fearless people who are so fueled by righteousness and a sense of duty that they never stop to consider the danger at hand. Teens will relate to Lena’s uncertainty, which endears her to the reader.
On the other hand, Lena’s friend Sofie is a dangerous combination of pretty, flighty, and desperate. She makes rash decisions, fudges the truth, and in sticky situations simply cannot be relied upon. She is exactly the kind of fairweather friend that level-headed but unconfident heroines seem to find themselves saddled with in fiction. I found myself wanting to smack Sofie and shake some sense into Lena. But Sofie represents action, something Lena feels incapable of doing, and it is through their friendship that Lena discovers who it is she wants (and doesn’t want) to be.
There is a love story of sorts, though not a particularly flowery or romantic one. Despite her reservations, Lena develops feelings for Albert, a young German soldier who helps the girls get to Almelo. Despite good intentions and a couple of chaste kisses, he becomes more of a symbol of what life might be like after the war than the love of Lena’s life. Sofie becomes involved with a soldier of her own but is much more reckless, finding herself pregnant and outcast as a traitor by the town which has been harbouring her. The scene in which her head is shaved in front of an angry mob of her own countrymen (and women) is chilling.
The reader gets a real sense of how dangerous life was during the war, particularly for women. There are predators and opportunists at every turn, and not just among the enemy. Lena’s father is quite cruel, and the butcher she boards with in Almelo makes numerous attempts at sexual assault. It is Albert, the young German soldier, who demonstrates kindness and compassion and shows Lena that not all men are awful. Good on de Vries for spinning expecations and making the only likable male character one of the “enemy.”
It sounds ridiculous to say this is not a light book about the war, because what about WWII was light, and yet there are books out there that are tempered by moments of levity, romance, and hope. Well not completley devoid of hope, Hunger Journeys is a dark slice of history that stays with the reader for a long time.
Hunger Journeys is available now from HarperTrophy Canada.