Would opening words such as these turn you away from a book?
“I wish this were a happy story. A story to make you doubt, and despair, and then have your hopes redeemed so you could believe again, at the last minute, in the essential goodness of the world around us and the people in it. There are few things in life, though, that turn out for the best, with real happy endings.”
They shouldn’t. They’re spoken by the world-weary but compassionate modern day narrator of a generations-old tale. The narrator leads those not stymied by that opening into the compelling story of an unusually courageous family facing increasingly troubling and demanding challenges, dilemmas, changes and decisions in the face of the start of World War II. While that might sound daunting and indeed, not a happy story as the narrator warns, it’s the narrator’s own unwitting warmth that will draw you in, that counterbalances the grim aspects of the unfolding story, and ultimately offers forms of hope and redemption, more than the narrator would even credit.The Bauers, Pavel and Anneliese and their six-year-old son Pepik, are a well-off, secular Jewish family living a quiet life in a small town in the Bohemia region of western Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. Their story begins with a jolt, as they learn of violence touching their extended family, as rumours of the growing Nazi occupation start to intrude on their comparatively idyllic existence. The characters of the Bauer family, including Pepik’s young, beloved governess, Marta, business associates from Pavel’s textile factory and others, start out somewhat wooden. The initial jolting sequence aside, you might be slow to connect with any of them and feel their rising concerns and confusion. (Thankfully, the present day narrator offers a plausible explanation later for some of the woodenness.) Even so, the Bauers and their child’s governess gradually develop into complex beings facing complicated times and situations, with often conflicting but very believable motivations and desires. At the same time, their eventual courage and determination seems unusual because these individuals don’t initially seem capable of great or even resourceful acts. They’re all in varying degrees of denial about the encroachment of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, seemingly too young or too sensitive to understand and cope with what is going on, or simply absorbed in day-to-day business and busy-ness, much of it ephemeral, trivial or distracting. In other words, the Bauers are authentically human in the face of forces beyond anyone’s comprehension. Author Alison Pick was inspired by her grandparents’ own arduous five-year exodus from Czechoslovakia to Canada during World War II in constructing the story of the flight of the Bauers. She couples down to earth, propulsive description and dialogue with occasional flourishes of the cinematic, all interwoven with the deft and poignant use of literal and symbolic images. Trains, which bookend both the story of the Bauers and the voice of the narrator, are a powerful case in point. Pepik’s toy train set interconnects the Bauer home, is a source of both distraction and solace for him and his family, and is a reminder of his absence when his parents secure him a place on a Kindertransport, part of a series of trains used to rescue children from Nazi occupied territories to be placed with families in the United Kingdom until and if the children could be reunited with their parents after the war. Arrivals and departures on train platforms, especially Pepik’s dramatic departure, are on one hand like typically dramatic movie scenes, but Pick underpins them with the earthy sights, sounds and smells of desperate, frightened human beings. Throughout, she invests images like this with both thematic potency and realistic dramatic resonance. Other examples of pervasive, effectively used imagery include references to lost children and lost childhood, and suppressed and denied identities. Marta, in that regard, is darker and more dimensional than her callow, innocent exterior first suggests. Most wrenchingly, the Bauers struggle with revealing or suppressing their Jewish heritage or assuming different identities in order to survive. The voice of the present-day narrator in Far To Go – wounded but resilient – is a reassuring and steadfast guide to the conclusion of this riveting story of a family torn asunder, then reassembled in a perhaps somewhat surprising fashion.
“There was not joy, exactly, in finding each other – we were too old, too set in our ways – but our pain was dulled. What we felt was not quite pleasure, but contentment. We had each finished our searching.”
The voice is wary, damaged, almost resigned, but the note of contentment suggests a faith not entirely extinguished by the cruelties of history. This is a journey and a voice worth following to an unexpectedly redemptive resolution. Even the green-tinged tones of the cover convey a hopefulness that builds with a subtle momentum over the course of this absorbing book.
Alison Pick recently discussed “Far To Go” on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter
Thank you to House of Anansi Press for providing a review copy of So Far to Go, by Alison Pick.