A Year of Borrowed Men

By Michelle Barker, illustrated by Renne Benoit. Pajama Press, 2015. 40 pages. $18.95/hardcover. Recommended for ages 6–9.

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As a child of World War II, born on the edge of London in 1941, I was intrigued by the voice of Gerda, growing up in Germany at the same time. When I was a child, Germans were “the enemy.” I could not have imagined having her as a friend. Gerda Schlottke grew up to live in Canada and become the mother of writer Michelle Barker. Barker captures her mother’s memories in this book, which includes photographs of Gerda, her home, parents, and siblings.

In 1944, when she was seven, three French prisoners of war were sent to the family farm to work in the place of German men taken to fight. Although they were officially feinde (enemies), the family regards them as freunde (friends), and endeavored to make them comfortable. This was dangerous and could lead to imprisonment. Eventually, the French men were free to return home. Although this story describes kind people peacefully risking severe penalties to remain faithful to their values, it is no idyll. Gerda’s brother and father were killed, and when the war ended, Russian soldiers “liberated” the farm animals.

The text is clear and accessible to young readers. The narrative is interesting for reading aloud. The illustrations are beautiful full-page, and sometimes double-page, spreads, all in generous color. For me they combine clarity and immediacy with an evocative quality from the picture books of my own childhood.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book for families, meetings, and schools. The apparent simplicity of style and narrative offers opportunities for exploration of such matters as the definition of “enemies,” how people change and behave under oppression and stress, how friendship can be demonstrated in the little, unassuming acts of everyday life.

Since the 1940s of my childhood, Germans are “enemies” only in novels and films. But there is in the twenty-first century no shortage of so-called “enemies.” The challenge of this book is to ask: How can we escape from the bondage of defining as “enemies” people who don’t conform to our narrow definitions of “friends”? How can we welcome, accept, and value people we think of as “them”?

My friend’s granddaughter has been looking at books with me. My friend was born a few months before me, and like Gerda, he was born in Germany. He has lived in England for many decades. Although our families were “enemies” when we were born, we have known nothing but friendship with each other. This book reminds me that such friendship is a precious fruit of peace that requires eternal vigilance and attention to the little things.

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