A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
One of the comparatively little-considered after effects of the Second World War was the huge number of malnourished, traumatized and – often – orphaned children left stranded in the rubble of Europe.
In response to the problem, the Irish Red Cross set up ‘Operation Shamrock’ – whereby children from Germany, Austria and other war-damaged countries were rehomed with foster families in Ireland to regain their strength, health and equilibrium. Most children eventually returned home while others were adopted by their fosterers.
Dianne Ascroft takes the very real Operation Shamrock and weaves around it a quirky but ultimately winning story of a little German boy from the Ruhr Valley called Erich who arrives, all uncomprehending, in Ireland at the age of five, having lost his mother in the air raids on the Ruhr Valley.
The story is told almost entirely from Erich’s point of view and, for a while, I was afraid the technique was going to be the book’s undoing. Five year olds can be pretty tiresome company, and the simplistic narrative style of the opening chapters very nearly caused me to give up and move on to the next in my to-be-read pile. Something, however, made me persevere. Perhaps it was the simple honesty of the writing, without any flashy writerly tricks or self-consciously lyrical passages; or perhaps it was just the unusual choice of time, place and subject. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I decided not to let it join the bachelor’s bunnies under my bed (where the bad books go …), because if I had, the loss would have been mine.
Hitler and Mars Bars has – among other things – a tremendous sense of place. That’s a term I’m probably overly fond of, but for some reason I always find novels set in definite and vividly drawn locations immensely appealing – and Dianne Ascroft captures the essence of post-war rural Ireland quite beautifully.
She also tells a tale that needs to be told … that of the little-known Operation Shamrock. It was only a comparative small undertaking, the proverbial drop in the ocean, but for the children involved, it was life-altering.
Ascroft manages to get inside little Erich’s head remarkably successfully. By letting us see the workings of his traumatized and confused brain as he moves from foster carer to foster carer, we can see how his sometimes apparently anti-social reactions to the people and events around him are in fact perfectly understandable – and even logical – from the child’s-eye view, but misinterpreted by adults who mean well but have little or no idea of what he’s actually been through in his short life.
There is no happy-ever-after ending for Erich. The book ends, realistically, on a note of hope but uncertainty.
Hitler and Mars Bars is a book for all ages but would be particularly good I think for older children telling – as it does – in a straightforwar and unfussy but ultimately effective way, a story about a little piece of recent Irish history that deserves to be far better known.
Trafford Publishing. 208. ISBN: 978-1-4251-4591-0. 338pp.