Synopses & Reviews
This is the story of two children caught in the midst of war.It is 1939 and thirteen-year-old Ilse, half-Jewish, has been sent out of Germany by her Aryan mother to a place of supposed safety. Her journey takes her from the labyrinthine bazaars of Morocco to Paris, a city made hectic at the threat of Nazi invasion. At the same time in Germany, Nicolai, a boy miserably destined for the Nazi Youth movement, finds comfort in the friendship of Ilses mother, the nursemaid hired to take care of his young sister. Gripping and poignant, The Childrens War is a stunning novel of wartime lives, of parents and children, of adventure and self-discovery.
In the spring of 1939, on the eve of her thirteenth birthday, a girl sits in a waiting room in Marseilles. Ilse is half Jewish; her mother has sent her out of Germany to a place she hopes will afford her daughter absolute safety. But instead, Ilse's journey takes her deep into the landscape of war: first to Morocco, then to Paris under the threat of Nazi invasion. Traveling across borders, blown by circumstances beyond her control, Ilse must use her wits to survive an enemy occupation, one that steals away her name and sense of self, making even her own language taboo.
At the same time, in Germany, a boy struggles with his place in the Hitler Youth. Despite the comforts of his Hamburg home, Nicolai comes to feel that he is a stranger in his own land. As his mother takes up with another man, Nicolai finds emotional refuge in a growing attachment to his beautiful new nursemaid, a woman of silences and sorrows. Gradually, he draws out her secret: she has a child whom she fears may be lost to her forever. That child is Ilse.
The Children's War evokes wartime lives and places with astonishing immediacy: the labyrin-thine bazaars of Meknes; Hamburg's cellars packed with civilians during air raids; the salt tang of Marseilles, where prostitutes and gangsters live side by side with freedom fighters and refugees. We meet "Swing Boys" sneaking tobacco and home-distilled liquor in illicit jazz cafes, and young soldiers stirring pea soup beside tents on the sandy Baltic coast.
Meticulously researched, yet also a vivid work of imagination, The Children's War re-creates the landscape of World War II in a new and utterly unforgettable way. Interweaving the stories of Ilse and of Nicolai, it is a gripping tale of adventure, loyalty, love and betrayal; of disappointment and hope; of parents and children trying to protect one another; of self-discovery. It is a stunning novel.
"From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Monique Charlesworth was born in Birkenhead, England, and has lived in France and Germany. She began writing fiction while living in Hong Kong and is the author of three previous novels. She has worked as a journalist and as a screenwriter for both film and television. She lives with her husband and two children in London.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
“Richly satisfying and utterly absorbing. . . . Fascinating and original. . . . Charlesworth tells the story so artfully that she brings an entirely fresh perspective to bear on familiar psychological territory.” -Robert MacNeil, The Washington Post Book World
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to broaden your groups discussion of Monique Charlesworths moving, indelible, and exquisite novel of loss and survival, The Childrens War.
1. As Ilse waits for her Red Cross escort in Marseilles, she mentally reviews the city guidebook she has memorized, in the hopes of doing some sightseeing on her way out of town. What does this episode reveal about Ilses character? What subsequent events does it foreshadow?
2. Ilse is hurt and shocked by Tonis crass assessment of her familys business failures and her parents ruinous marriage, and later, by Tonis insistence that Ilse return to Europe. Why, then, does Ilse conjure fond memories of Toni and try to reach her throughout the novel? What is at the root of Tonis pull on her imagination? How does “Tonis terrible straightforwardness” [p. 58] influence Ilse as she enters adulthood?
3. Nicolai overhears his father lament, “Im passing myself off as something Im not” [p. 36] during one of many arguments with his wife about patriotism. How is this statement echoed in Nicolais own experiences? Does it affect his respect for his father?
4. Ilses relationship with Otto is based almost entirely in her imagination, since they engage in little dialogue. “It seemed to her that just one level under the darkness that shrouded him there had to be a huge golden space, full of light. This space, which could not be seen from the outside, contained all the love he had for both of them but in these circumstances could not be expressed” [p. 90]. Does Otto confirm this hypothesis at any point? How does Ilse view his suicidal idealism?
5. Willy argues that religion “doesnt matter. Its the great tragedy of the twentieth century that it does,” echoing Ottos assertion that “religion was irrelevant in the twentieth century” [p. 55]. Is Ilses obsession with the Catholic faith a direct rebellion against these two father figures? If not, what is the source of her fascination? Are her church rituals a product of faith, or are they spurred by superstition? Is her desire to be baptized motivated by self-preservation as the priest suspects?
6. Nicolai describes the Jungvolk summer camp as a near collision with obliteration: “They blurred together, the shorts above bony knees the same, even the backs of their necks and haircuts seemingly identical, so that he no longer knew which his troop was or barely who he himself might be. In younger, sadder years, camp week had passed in terror at this uniformity. He had been on constant alert, fearful that if he once ducked into the wrong tent, he might find himself forever trapped in somebody elses life” [p. 109]. What is the meaning of this passage? Is it a commentary on German pre war culture or on herd mentality in general? Does Nicolai escape this dreaded uniformity?
7. What aspects of Francoiss character inspire Ilses steadfast love? What does he offer her emotionally? How do her feelings for him evolve over the course of the novel?
8. Why is Nicolai obsessed with the stalled campaign on the Eastern Front and with bringing it to his familys attention? Are his fathers maxims-“Bad thoughts and ideas expand into the air and then they choke us” [p. 260], and “Honours a luxury we dont have. Were living the time of dishonour” [p. 261]-meant to silence Nicolais opinions?
9. This novel is unique in that the parallel story lines never intersect. While Nicolai actively imagines Ilse, Ilse is unaware of Nicolais existence; only after learning of the Hamburg firestorm does she muse, “There had been children in that house, but she would never know anything about them” [p. 347]. Could Ilses story stand alone as a novel? Is the failure of Ilse and Nicolai to connect used as a literary device? If so, what does it signify?
10. The Childrens War investigates the power of war to warp and rewire everyday notions of morality. Can Lores decision to part ways with Ilse be considered immoral, considering the anguish it causes her child? What about Ottos decision to destroy Lores letters? When Francois allows a child prisoner to be tortured to death in front of him, rather than spill secrets that will lead to the imprisonment and possible death of hundreds of compatriots, where does he fall on the moral spectrum?
11. Nicolais feelings for Lore straddle a divide between the infantile and the erotic. Is this a one-way relationship, or is Lore emotionally engaged with him? To what extent is Nicolai seeking a refuge from his own icy, unreliable mother?
12. The novel is rife with marital wrangling: Ilses mother resents her husbands obstinate political passion; Nicolais mother resents her husbands embarrassing political apathy; Toni forbids Willy to join the foreign legion and deserts him when he does; and at least two of the spouses have extramarital affairs. How do their observations of these couples shape Ilses and Nicolais understanding of romantic relationships?
13. What symbolic role does Nicolais photography play in the text? As the novel ends, and he departs the ruins of Hamburg with the remaining members of his family, Nicolai no longer carries his camera. Why does he give it up?
14. Albert Rothberg functions as an archetypal avuncular eccentric, something along the lines of The Nutcrackers Drosselmeyer. What does he teach Ilse about art, loyalty, and survival? Does she find his lessons enduring?
15. Ilse blames herself for her fathers disappearance when she discovers that he is captured while attempting to purchase an exit visa she had begged for: “In these slow hours her wickedness lay heavily in the corners of the room. She had disobeyed him” [p. 203]. Does she ever recover from this sense of guilt? What accounts for the sudden, uncharacteristic bout of energy that leads Otto to his demise?
16. The Childrens War is punctuated with poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Heinrich Heine. What purpose do the poems serve? Are they used in concert with, or counterpoint to, each other? Why did the author choose these two particular poets?
17. After years of yearning to be cherished like a child again, Ilse realizes that she is unable to attain Francoiss romantic attention specifically because he considers her to be just that. Where else does irony play a pivotal role in the narrative?
18. A major theme in the novel is the devastation that results from parental failure. Ilse and Nicolai both hunger for present, compassionate mothers and focused, sheltering fathers. Both end up cobbling together a parental presence in their lives, composed of memories, self-nurturing, and the kindness of other adults. How is this theme enhanced by the backdrop of war? To what extent does this theme stand alone as a narrative structure?