February 2007

Venturing behind enemy lines

By Mal Peet
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Tamar’s grandfather helped her survive algebra, taught her how to solve crosswords and enabled her to cope with her father’s sudden disappearance. That’s why Tamar, who was named after her grandfather’s Dutch Resistance alias, is utterly shattered when, devastated by his wife’s growing dementia, her granddad commits suicide. It takes Tamar months to open the box he left her in lieu of a suicide note, but when she does, its cryptic messages send her on an odyssey into her family’s history.

The box’s contents point to her grandfather’s experiences 50 years before, during the harrowing Hunger Winter of 1944, when the Nazis, sensing their imminent defeat, resorted to their most brutal tactics of the Dutch occupation.

Following months of intense espionage training, two young men parachute into the Dutch countryside. One of them, code name Dart, is a first-time wireless operator posing as a doctor. The other, code name Tamar, is a more experienced resistance operative, eager to return to the Netherlands not only to coordinate the local movement but also to revisit his beloved Marijke.

Beautiful and brave Marijke’s bold spirit is more captivating than she knows, igniting a chain of events that erupts in tragedy and leaves indelible scars that last to the present day.

Mal Peet’s young adult novel, which won Britain’s prestigious Carnegie Medal, is a masterpiece of war writing. Using a relentlessly intense narrative, Peet manages to capture the atrocities of the Nazi occupation in a way no history textbook ever could. In addition, Peet vividly conveys the more mundane but no less real realities of wartime: the delights of a bite of chocolate or a sip of cognac, the unexpected boredom, the fragility of love, the unending fear, the hesitation to hope. Just as Tamar’s characters live on long after the final pages, the novel reminds readers that history’s implications cannot and should not ever be forgotten.

Norah Piehl is a writer and editor in the Boston area.

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By Mal Peet
ISBN 9780763634889

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