Waiting for Anya
This historical coming-of-age book by Michael Morpurgo is published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group, a division of Penguin Books Inc.
Waiting for Anya is written for kids ages 10 to 14. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
While Jo's father is fighting in the French army during the Second World War, Jo struggles with his responsibility in the hunting death of a bear and seeks to rescue the newly orphaned bear's cub. He meets a gentle, mysterious stranger in the woods. The stranger cares for Jo's wounded dog.
Jo follows the stranger and learns he lives with a reclusive widow in the mountains above the village. The stranger is her son-in-law, Benjamin. He is Jewish, and his mother-in-law is not. Benjamin is hiding there, waiting for his daughter, Anya, to arrive, because Hitler has demanded that France turn over all Jews to the Germans.
When he and his daughter originally tried to escape France, they had agreed to meet at this farm if they became separated. Benjamin refuses to leave the farm until Anya arrives, because he is certain that she survived the Nazi attack that separated them. Once she arrives, Benjamin plans to continue over the mountain border into the safety of Spain. In the meantime, Benjamin remains at the widow's farm: hiding, praying and helping a series of other Jewish children escape across the border.
Jo returns to the village to find that German soldiers now occupy it, bringing the villagers and the border under a more watchful eye. Initially, the villagers clearly resent the intrusion. But over time they wrestle with the humanity of these enemy soldiers, beginning to see them as people, some who are truly kind and have suffered losses in the war.
With the border now effectively closed, Benjamin is unable to smuggle out the children who keep steadily arriving at the widow's farm. As the strain grows on their resources, the widow enlists Jo, and eventually his grandfather, for help. They do so willingly and bravely, knowing it means death if discovered.
Jo's father returns home after time in a POW camp. He is a broken man — physically and emotionally. Initially he is unable to step back into the role he had in Jo's life. He has no patience for the occupying soldiers, sees any kindnesses toward (or from) them as collaborating with the enemy and violently lashes out at Jo for doing so.
Jo's grandfather defends Jo's actions, but in order to do so, must expose his own and Jo's involvement with the refugees. This not only brings reconciliation between Jo and his father, but together, Jo's family develops a daring plan to safely smuggle the children across the border. This particular plan will work only with the cooperation of the entire village — a dangerous experiment in trust.
The villagers agree to the plan, although some more enthusiastically than others. On the day they carry it out, some German soldiers appear suspicious, and there are a few close calls. The next day, while the villagers are celebrating secretly, they discover that Benjamin and one of the youngest Jewish children have been captured. All the other children safely made it across the border. The sight of these two being held captive breaks something in the village's collective heart. Any tenuous solidarity with the soldiers is cut, and the villagers return to a cold emotional distance, now seeing the soldiers only as the enemy.
Before long the war ends, France is restored to her citizens, and the soldiers leave. But for this town, it is a hollow victory. During their retreat, the soldiers shoot and kill one of the young men of the village. Not done out of malice, and involving an element of misunderstanding, the incident is grieved by both sides. Another significant loss is that the villagers learn that Benjamin and the young girl were sent on to Auschwitz. Neither survived.
After the war, life tries to return to normal for Jo's village, but Jo is still processing the changes and the loss, and in some ways may be withdrawing in a similar, although less violent, way, as his father did. In the last scene, Benjamin's missing daughter, Anya, appears, arriving safely at last to her grandmother's home.
Church attendance is a common part of village life, but it is unclear how many attend for spiritual vs. for community reasons. There are a fair number of sincere "God bless you" and "May God help us" phrases in the villagers' vocabulary.
The church has a positive role in the village. When the soldiers come, they stay at the priest's house. Some of the soldiers regularly attend church with the villagers. The priest (along with all the other villagers) helps rescue the Jewish children, and he plays an important role in the rescue — using (and perhaps abusing) the trust the German soldiers give his position.
Throughout the story, the many regular kindnesses the villagers show to the refugees are described as brave and admirable, but they are reflected as noble moral actions rather than a direct result of someone's Christian faith.
Benjamin, who is Jewish, prays regularly. The widow prays less so, and Jo only rarely, after which unexpected rescues do sometimes occur. But even these events are described in such a way that it is unclear whether they happen due to chance, the kindness of men or supernatural intervention.
Other Belief Systems
Judaism itself is not explored deeply, although the Jewish people clearly are described as people of the Bible (with ties to Solomon, David, etc.). The villagers know that Jews don't go to church, but they think they might worship at a temple. The refugee Benjamin prays regularly and is probably the character most confident that God will intervene in their situation. He does joke with his mother-in-law that they pray to two different gods. At the end, just before the most dangerous, public part of their escape plan, he blesses Jo's family with the blessing used at the end of synagogue worship, Zechariah 14:9.
The Nazi anti-Jewish policies are described — starting with identifying marks (a yellow star) and moving into forced ghetto living, open attacks and concentration camps. Some German characters seem to have internalized these policies more than others. Some characters on both sides seem uncertain of the wisdom of the policies. And some French characters aggressively fight them from the beginning. In these last two groups — those who are uncertain and those who are not — we see a variety of actual actions. Sometimes the character enforces Nazi policy out of a sense of duty, and other times turns a strategic blind eye to activities. Some characters actively resist, and sometimes they hesitate a moment too long.
Single uses of the phrases who the h--- and d--n you are used, along with what the devil…? God's name is used in the phrases for ---'s sake and with the word knows. It also is used casually in God willing and God rest him. The French villagers use racial slurs against the German soldiers (Boche).
There is disturbing violence, but it isn't excessive or gratuitous in the following scenes: a bear hunt, a wounded dog, an eagle and chicks eating prey and a drunken outburst from Jo's father.
There is a mentally challenged young man in the village. He is generally gentle, well-loved and an artist. He loves to "hunt," running with sticks and shouting, "Bang! Bang!" He regularly pretends to shoot at animals and people. This same youth, under the influence of alcohol, chases the retreating soldiers and brandishes a loaded gun; and one of the soldiers shoots and kills him.
In what today may be labeled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Jo's father returns home a very different man than when he left. Although his wife knows it will take time for him to heal emotionally as well as physically, Jo doesn't understand this as a process, and rather guiltily wishes his father hadn't come back home yet if he was going to be like this. While under the influence of alcohol, Jo's father strikes Jo.
All kissing expresses nonromantic affection. There are a few instances of the European cheek-to-cheek kiss (either in greeting or in father-like affection), and Jo's sister shyly accepts a kiss from her father when he returns home from the war. Any sexual references are highly implied. The villagers whisper that Jo's grandfather may have ulterior motives for helping the widow. Some say this with disdain, some with a grin. In one celebration scene at the village café, the village teacher sings songs that include lyrics the villagers think he ought not to know (but there is no mention of what those lyrics are).
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