Penguin Random House
Sep 2017 | 336 Pages | Middle Grade (8-12)
There is war.
There is pain.
But there is magic and there is hope.
I’ve read many books both fictional and non-fiction concerning World War II and particularly the horror of the Holocaust but never have I read one that blends historical fiction with fairytale and folklore. Think a mixture of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Hans Christian Andersen and ancient Polish folktales for this unusual and intriguing book.
Basically two narratives run together, sometimes parallel and sometimes interwoven. Karolina is a little wooden seamstress who lives in The Land of Dolls. Her homeland is beautiful and filled with joy, sweetness and all good things. Until that is, the Rats from across the sea invade (perfect allegory!). The filthy contemptuous rats bring every bit of their cruel, mean-spirited and arrogant ways to bear on the inhabitants of The Land of Dolls, terrorising all from the highest to lowest with equal dispassion. Eventually forced to escape her little cottage, Karolina finds refuge in the woods and also a wooden soldier called Fritz, formerly of the Royal Guard. The two make their way to find the gentle warm wind called Dogoda which reputedly can transport toys to the human world.
Karolina fetches up in the shop of the Dollmaker of Krakow, a kindly but troubled man who unknowingly possesses a special magical gift which has brought Karolina to life in the human world, as she was in her own land. There she and the Dollmaker find solace in each other’s company and after some time also find true friendship with Jozef, a widowed Jewish symphony violinist and his little girl, Rena. When the Nazi rats invade Poland just as they did The Land of Dolls, the cruelty begins and death, destruction and despair envelop beautiful Krakow. By some mystical fate, a young and arrogant SS officer who begins a remorseless campaign of persecution against the four, who now consider themselves family, has a frightening connection with Karolina and the Dollmaker.
The poignancy of this tale tinged with its mystic reality is every bit as heartbreaking as any piece of ‘straight’ historical fiction. With beautiful illustrations reflecting the folkloric nature of the piece and similar borders which define the Land of Dolls narrative this is a work of art in more ways than one.
The fact that it took me only two sittings to consume this at the end of a long and tiring term is a testament to its power to enthral. This is a powerful debut novel which resonates with the themes of hope, compassion and the strength of the human spirit and love.
I would highly recommend it for readers from around 12 years upwards.