Vulpes Libris

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.

Hitler and Mars Bars by Dianne Ascroft


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.

7 comments on “Hitler and Mars Bars by Dianne Ascroft

  1. Nikki
    January 30, 2009

    Thanks for this – I’ve never heard it of it before. Might have to pick it up. There seems to be quite a sub-genre of children’s Second World War stories – everything from Goodnight Mister Tom to this, plus the books that focus on children during the War that aren’t exactly children’s books (like The Book Thief). It’s a sub-genre I quite like, so might have to scout this out at some point…

  2. Jackie
    January 30, 2009

    Wonder if the author thought telling the story from Erich’s view would be the most convincing at getting across the confusion & other feelings he was experiencing? It must be difficult to write as a 5 yr. old as an adult. They see things so differently. I knew about English children being sent to the countryside, but this is the first I’ve heard of Operation Shamrock, which in a way, seems even more generous. The cover art looks to give an accurate feeling of the book’s atmosphere.
    As always, an enjoyable, amusing review.

  3. Dianne Ascroft
    January 31, 2009

    Yes, it is very difficult to write as a young child – and make it convincing. It is limiting in some ways but I felt that the best way to convey Erich’s thoughts and feelings was to write from his point of view. The narrative in the novel develops as Erich grows and matures.

  4. Moira
    January 31, 2009

    It does indeed, Dianne – the narrative has become a lot more fluent – just like Erich – by the end of the book.

    Welcome to Vulpes, by the way!

  5. Jackie
    January 31, 2009

    It’s always great when the author stops by. I never get over that little thrill.

  6. Lisa
    January 31, 2009

    Interesting title. I’ll look out for it in the library and order it in if they don’t have it. Five-year-old narrators must be very difficult to write, so I’d be interested to see how it works.

  7. Pingback: David Maybury | Blog » Hitler and Mars Bars

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This entry was posted on January 30, 2009 by in Uncategorized.



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