Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Silver Sword

My reading habits are a mystery to some of my family.

"But you read gloomy autobiographies," says Olli, "so why won't you read gloomy fiction?"

It's a fair question. I love autobiographies. In my younger days, if it was a true story, I'd read it, no matter how harrowing. Japanese prisoner-of-war camp? Yup. Holocaust survivor? Yes, I'd read it, often on the beach, on holiday, to the horror of my mother.

"You're reading WHAT? On HOLIDAY?"

Not that my mother would be reading a frothy Jilly Cooper or a little light Catherine Cookson or similar. No, she'd be reading some Serious Fiction. No Chick Lit has ever been held in her hands.

Or in mine either, I must say. I can't bear the Beach Novel-type stuff. I'll read the autobiography that tells the true story - - but I will not read a fictionalised version. And yes, I do know that it's possible to use a fictional situation to get at the truth - that's what I do all the time in medical roleplay. It's just that, to me, when reading I can brace myself for, and cope with, the horror of the real thing. But I don't want invented gloom set in a real setting.

I know exactly what this feeling dates from, too. It dates from being made to read, at school, a book by Ian Serraillier called The Silver Sword. Here's my original copy from that time.

It was first published in 1956, the year I was born. My copy dates from 1968, when I was twelve, and has my name in it, in my mother's handwriting.

It is set during the Second World War and is about three siblings - Ruth, Edek and Bronia - in Warsaw, Poland. Their parents have been taken away by the Nazis, their home blown up, and they are trying to survive on their own with the help of their friend Jan. When the war finally ends they trek across a chaotic Europe in search of their parents.

It isn't that it's a bad book - quite the reverse. It's really well-written and brilliantly evokes the horror and misery of those times. But I would never, ever have read it, had I not been compelled to read it at school.

When I was a small child everyone was still talking about the War. If you left a light on in our house my Grandma would shout, half-jokingly "Put that light out! Don't you know there's a war on?"

Amongst my earliest dreams were nightmares of the men in big boots who came in the night to take you away, and I knew that they were Nazis. I'm half-Jewish and this did indeed happen to all my relatives in Eastern Europe - there was no trace of them after the war.

The Silver Sword is the kind of book that adults think children should read, to learn what those times were like. But I didn't need to read it - I didn't want to go there, not even in my imagination. Just looking at the cover gives me that heavy sense of horror and gloom, even to this day.

So I would come home from school and hurl myself into Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, or his very funny true stories about his zoological trips abroad, which were my reading of choice at that time. I still have many of those, too - - all very battered, from having been read so much.

My copy of The Silver Sword is in much better condition. It has been read - - but it has never been loved, not by me, anyway. Looking at it again, I see with amazement that it very nearly has a happy ending. That's not what I remember.


Blogger Jennyta said...

I never read it but I remember it being serialised on Children's TV. I didn't take to it either, I'm afraid.

8:29 pm  
Blogger Yorkshire Pudding said...

Daphne - Having spent much of my adult life "teaching" fiction, I have to admit that in my private life I have found more pleasure in non-fiction - especially travel writing. Nonetheless, I do believe that good fiction can often tell truths more cuttingly than remembered factual accounts. Take the wonderful "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" for example.

8:51 pm  
Blogger Ailbhe said...

I love it but I don't approve of forcing children to be fictionally harrowed. There's plenty of harrowing in real life. We read "The House of Sixty Fathers" when I was about 10, in school, and of course "Lord of the Flies" in early secondary school, and I don't think they were very educational, though I enjoyed both. I don't really remember it having a happy ending. "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit" is much more suitable for children.

12:28 am  

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