I Am David by Anne Holm
|I Am David by Anne Holm
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy
|Summary: Not particularly effective as an adventure story, I Am David is a story of the victims of war and of the effects of censorship. It has some difficult ideas and some scenes that may shock the little ones. However, David and his plight are incredibly engaging and the book gives its young readers a chance to test their values and beliefs.
|Date: September 1989
David is twelve years old. All his life he has lived in a concentration camp in Eastern Europe. It is a terrible place. David knows nothing of the outside world except those things his one good friend and mentor, Johannes, now dead, told him. He has no story, no memories to hold on to, he doesn't know the names of his parents, or whether they are alive or dead even, what his religion is, or from which country he comes. It is not even clear to us, the readers, whether the camp is Nazi or perhaps post-war Russian. David knows only one thing: that he is David. It is not much upon which to build a life, is it? But it is all he has. And on the day that The Man, one of the camp guards hated by David, but one who has always been strangely protective of him, offers him a chance to escape, his name is the only thing he has to take with him. The Man has provided him with a compass, a bottle of water, and a bar of soap, David himself has only his name to bring.
He must go south to the coast, find a ship bound for Salonica in somewhere called Italy, and then go north, until he gets to Denmark. That is all he knows. And he is on his own, accompanied by only his determination to get to Denmark, his terror of being recaptured and losing this new, sweet freedom, and the confusion of his thoughts. For David, the world is not only a frightening place, full of danger and menace, but also an incomprehensible one. He doesn't know what an orange is, what a sandwich is, or even how to smile. He has no concept of beauty or pleasure. He doesn't even understand truly what colour is, and when he finds colour it is overwhelming:
"David was familiar only with various tones of grey and brown, and of course the blue of the sky. Well, yes, he had once seen a little red flower that had strayed inside the camp wall. Apart from that colour was something he had only heard of... He did not know how long he stayed there on the mountainside, sitting motionless, just gazing... only when everything grew strangely misty did he discover that he was crying. Far below him lay the sea, a sea bluer than any sky he had ever seen. The land curved in and out along its edge: in and out, up and down, all green and golden with here and there the red of flowers too far off to be clearly seen. Beauty."
But he is an introspective, deep child, he observes constantly and learns quickly and he has his own, strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. This carries him through the worst of the situations in which he finds himself as he travels across an Europe in search of somewhere finally to belong. David meets many people on the course of his journey, from them he learns that despite his new-found freedom he remains different from other people, especially from other children. He finds trust impossible, affection unreal, and realises that the brutality of life in the camp has made him that way. But still, lonely as he feels, he makes his way, slowly, and with determination, closer and closer to Denmark. And slowly he learns that to live a normal life he must need other people, and be needed by them. He finds his first affectionate relationship with Maria, a small girl whom he rescues from a fire, and it is at Maria he smiles when he finds himself smiling for the first time. He stays with her grateful family for a while, but finds it too hard to fit in, and in any case, he knows that he must get to Denmark if he has any hope of discovering who he really is.
David does eventually get to Denmark, but what he finds there I'll leave you to discover for yourself. Reading his story made Conor and Kieran and I think a lot, about all sorts of things, but mostly it made us think about the truth. When David is staying with Maria's family he spends a lot of time talking to her not about the specifics of his life, but how they have made him feel about truth, about honesty, and about evil. He makes Maria's mother feel unsettled and afraid:
"'But I'll not have Maria's innocent, carefree childhood spoilt by a knowledge of evil she had no idea of. Children have their own troubles - they mustn't be expected to bear the miseries and sorrows of the grown-up world.'"
And this is why David decides he must leave the family and go on with his journey to Denmark, but before he goes he leaves a letter thanking her mother for her hospitality and explaining:
"'I am glad I told Maria that evil exists. I don't want to her to be afraid, but it's something you have to know about. Can't you understand that children have a right to know about everything that's true? If there's danger, you have to recognise it, or else you can't take care of yourself.'"
Well, I think that David has it right and that Maria's mother has it wrong. I think that to censor reflects a lack of confidence in how children learn, that censorship is an evil barrier to all those, especially children, who seek knowledge, experience and confidence. What do you think? Children will hate the idea that David had found a family and a first friend only to feel forced to give them up because he was judged to know too much, and they will want very badly for him to find a way to fit in, and for him to find a place in which he could feel he belonged. His story gives children the chance to be involved in something terrible but without suffering the consequences of involvement, they were able to test their thoughts, beliefs and values against David's and against those of the people he met.
And I think that is the key to I Am David. It is not a particularly successful adventure story, it's too full of silly coincidence and unlikely event for that. In terms of its plot it's rather like that old film beloved of generations of children in which two dogs and a cat, accidentally left behind by their owners, cross an entire continent trying to find their new home. But children don't mind that. They can suspend their disbelief if the story engages them. And, just as they are engaged by the tale of three animals trying to find home, they are engaged by the tale of a lonely child who has suffered so terribly trying to find a place to belong, however unlikely his adventures. The road on which David journeys is a vicarious one, while we read we are led to imagine we are somewhere else, doing things we've never done and thinking thoughts other than our own. War is far from a glorious human achievement, and all children, who are developing their own views of the world, need to see the effects of war if they are to value the concept of peace and need to see the effects of imprisonment if they are to value the concept of freedom.
Literature has the power to shock and to challenge and literature for children is no exception. I Am David is a shocking tale, and a challenging one too for it is not afraid to tell of what it sees. Don't be afraid to let them read it either, as soon as they are able.
Children interested in justice and social issues may also enjoy Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah.
You can read more book reviews or buy I Am David by Anne Holm at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy I Am David by Anne Holm at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.
Ken Martin said:
For the record, the story of the two dogs and the cat which cross America is a very true story well documented. It happened in Canada in 1954 or 1955. I am David must be post-World War II, as Italy is in peace, and so is Germany/Austria. David escapes either from Iron Curtain Albania or Bulgaria.
Thanks, Ken! Although I think the ambiguity about where David is/escapes from/to is deliberately ambiguous.
Delzaan Sutaria said:
WOW!!!!!!!!!!The book is touching and full of emotion. It is a good review. A VERY GOOD REVIEW!!!!!!!!!!!!