Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Book Review: Girl with a White Dog

By Anne Booth

(Post by Marie-Louise Jensen)

Jessie is excited when her gran gets a white Alsatian puppy, but with Snowy's arrival a mystery starts to unfold. As Jessie learns about Nazi Germany at school, past and present begin to slot together and she uncovers something long-buried, troubling and somehow linked to another girl and another white dog…
Family troubles, dementia, a longed-for pet and a mysterious past: I wasn't far into this book before I began to realise there were many layers in the narrative and that the way the tale was unfolding was unusual but exciting. The writing is gentle, warm and caring.

When Jessie's grandmother begins to have episodes of forgetfulness and fear and to say things that make no sense to her family, Jessie becomes afraid for her. Strangely, the things she is saying begin to link uncomfortably with Jessie's aunt, who blames immigrants for all the troubles in the area, with the brick that is thrown through Mr Gupta's village-shop window and with an attack on the young man with Down's syndrome. Her grandmother's condition also seems to coincide with her unexpected acquisition of a white puppy for whose safety she is irrationally afraid.
Jessie grows curious about her grandmother's past, which no one in her family knows anything about. This becomes especially important when Ben's grandmother visits the school to talk about Nazi Germany as part of a history project. Eventually she decides to look through her box of photos and letters which Snowy has found and chewed.
All the threads in the story are linked and connect past and present. The tale is a lesson in remembering the past and making sure it doesn't repeat itself horribly in the present. My favourite line, without doubt, and the main message I myself will take from the book is in the very last section: "a story [...] is being told that we believe in [ ... ] But we have not checked who is telling it."
Do we always think about who is telling us something and what their agenda might be? If we don't, we should. Otherwise we are easily manipulated.
Jessie tells us this is a fairy tale, and like all fairy tales it begins by being sad. And you have to make up your own mind about whether the ending is happy or sad. It may be different things to different readers.

It’s difficult to pinpoint an appropriate reading age for this book. It seems to be set in secondary rather than primary school, as the subjects are divided and taught by different teachers. The voice is young and the writing highly accessible. The subject is upsetting in places but always gently told and never graphic. My feeling reading it was that a child would understand the story on different levels depending on their age and would draw an age-appropriate message from it. There is plenty here for an adult reader too, especially those readers who aren't all that familiar with the Third Reich - and anyone who enjoys a sensitively-told tale, beautifully written.

With thanks to Catnip Books for a review copy.


Sue Bursztynski said...

The cover art suggests a younger intended audience. It might have trouble selling to teenagers even if the characters are in their teens; these tend to prefer photo covers. A pity, because it sounds like an interesting book, rather like Pennies For Hitler and Hitler's Daughter, both by Jackie French.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I think it's definitely upper primary and very well done. I don't think the targeting will be a problem.

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