My thanks to NetGalley and Europe Comics for a review copy of this one.
This is a World-War-II themed graphic novel which is based on a true story (which I only realised later) of the author’s own family, and the diary of young Marcelle Balthazar who is fifteen at the time Poland is conquered and the war begins. In the book we see side-by-side, two storylines, one of the Balthazar family which comprises M. and Mme. Balthazar and their five children of whom Marcelle is the oldest, all studying at school, and M. Balthazar’s mother. When war begins, M. Balthazar is drafted, and Mme Balthazar must look after the family, and along with the other women in her town, take over the jobs that the men are no longer there to do. Alongside moves the storyline of Margurite Clauwaerts (also based on a real life character), school teacher to one of younger Balthazar children, who tells her students to be polite to the occupiers to avoid trouble, but herself is a resistance fighter, helping their men hide, and carrying what they need including ammunitions. While Marcelle’s storyline examines the themes that people living life amidst war must face, that of Margurite is of the dangers that the resistance had to face, and what befell them when they were caught.
This book doesn’t proceed in a continuous narrative, but as a bunch of connected incidents in the wartime, proceeding chronologically but in different time periods from the war’s start to when the town is freed by the Tommies. Many themes are explored, including the actual experiences of people in the war—not ones who were consciously part of the resistance but ones who had to lead daily lives, to look after their children and families in an atmosphere when the ‘enemy’ was in-charge, when rations and supplies were few, where families are forced to be apart, and when dangers were ever present. The Balthazar family is attempting to lead as normal a life as they can, the children continuing with school when they can, doing their daily chores, all the time wondering when their father will be back. The Balthazar children aren’t part of the resistance but they make small forms of protest wearing patriotic symbols and sometimes outsmarting the Germans. Marcelle’s account touches upon these issues and upon issues of gender equality (women having to take up all the work during war but having to go back to just being women after), voting rights (which came for women in Belgium much after England), and about how there were humans and demons (for want of better word) alike on both sides of the equation. One of the most powerful scenes in the book for me was that showing how the captives were no better than their captors when it came to their treatment of the ‘enemy’—something Marcelle rightly questions. Margurite’s story too touches one deeply. On a lighter note, I loved the Tintin and Quick and Flupke references in the book, especially that one character was reading King Ottokar’s Sceptre which is one of my favourite Tintin books. There is a bit (though very little) of adult content (which didn’t feel absolutely necessary for the storyline) and some violence, so this is not a book for younger readers. The wolf art/analogy alongside the humans was effective in making the point the author was trying to, though humans I think are far worse than any of the animal kind. This was certainly an impactful read, which I liked very much, though ‘like’ again is not a word one would use for this theme.