Prather’s Pick: A book with a World War I setting
This week’s book for young adult readers (probably aimed at middle school age) has an unusual title and a rather unexpected plot. “Stay Where You Are & Then Leave” was written by John Boyne, the author of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” which became a Miramax feature film. The novel was published by Henry Holt and Company (2013).
The setting of this week’s novel is London during World War I. Alfie Summerfield is 9 years old as the novel opens. Alfie and his parents, Georgie and Margie, live on Damley Road. Georgie works for a dairy. Every morning, he is up early to hitch Mr. Asquith, the horse, to a float. Together, they deliver milk to clients. More than anything in the world, Alfie would like to ride on the milk float with his father, but Georgie just says he’s too young.
The Summerfields live in one of the terraced houses on Damley Road. The houses are on either side of the road and are attached to one another by thin walls. The even numbers are on one side of the road, and the odd numbers are on the other side. Among the people who live there are Granny Summerfield, who is across the road; Old Bill Hemperton, an Austrian who lives right next door; Joe Patience, Georgie’s best friend, who lives in No. 16; and Kalena Janacek and her father, who live in No. 6.
The neighbors are interesting characters who play heavily in the novel’s plot. For example, Kalena and her father have come to London from Prague. Kalena is Alfie’s best friend. Her father owns a small shop on the corner where people can buy some grocery items. It is a favorite place for Alfie because when he has a penny, he can spend time deciding which sweet he wants to buy. Will it be sherbet lemons, apple or pear drops, licorice sticks or caramel surprises?
Mr. Janacek has the shiniest shoes in London. That’s because he has a shoeshine box that contains two brushes, some cloths and tins of polish. The shoeshine box figures into the novel in a big way.
Joe Patience is often at odds with his neighbors because he gets worked up about lots of issues, such as workers’ rights and whether women should vote. Besides, he’s the only one on Damley Road who doesn’t have a yellow door. He painted his red; later, he painted it green.
So, as the novel begins, Alfie is remembering how it all began. It was July 28, 1914, the day of his fifth birthday party. Most of the children he invited to the party didn’t show up, but Kalena was there with her father. Granny was there, too, and Old Bill Hemperton. Everybody was worked up because World War I had begun. There was talk about “signing up,” something that Alfie din’t understand just then.
Things changed in a hurry. Georgie enlisted. Then, thinking Kalena and her father were Germans, some army men came and took them to the Isle of Man. Joe Patience got locked up at Wormwood Scrub because he refused to enlist. Margie and Alfie barely scraped by. Margie worked all hours as a queen’s nurse, tending to the injured men who were sent home. She took in laundry, sewing and darning. Food was scarce.
Alfie went to school two days each week; the older teachers left behind didn’t care if he attended or not. Instead, he broke into the Janacek home and borrowed the shoeshine box. With it, Alfie made extra pennies, some that he put into his mother’s purse and some that he hid in his sock drawer. Alfie’s extra income was a secret.
Georgie wrote home at first. Then the mood of his letters changed, and Margie hid them from Alfie. He found the letters anyway. Georgie wrote that his sergeant repeated, “Stay where you are and then leave” over and over, thus the title of the book. Finally, Georgie quit writing. Margie said that he was on a secret mission. One day when Alfie was shining a doctor’s shoes, he saw something on one of the doctor’s papers that led Alfie on a mission.
This is a fascinating book. It can be found with the new books at the Moffat County Library or can be purchased in hardcover for $16.99.