When I was a teenager I went through stages of reading nothing but war stories. I was fascinated by them because I couldn’t believe how people, especially children, could survive such a horrific event. These stories put me in the shoes of teenagers in another time, taught me empathy and taught me a lot about the survival instinct of humans. The thing that always gets me with war stories is that you know these horrible things happened, but you struggle to accept that anyone can be that cruel. In her latest book, A Winter’s Day in 1939, Melinda Szymanik introduces us to a Polish family who do everything they can to stay together and stay alive.
Taken from their home, forced to leave their country, put to work in labour camps, frozen and starved, Adam and his family doubt that they will ever make it out alive. Even if they were to get away, they might freeze to death, or starve, or the bears might get them. For the Polish refugees, the whole of the USSR becomes a prison from which there is seemingly no escape.
A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds. Adam and his family are ripped from their safe, comfortable life in Poland and transported to prison camps in Russia, in freezing conditions and with little to eat and drink. They get transported in dirty, stinking train carriages with a stove and a pipe as a toilet, live in cramped barracks with many other families, and are forced to work for the good of Russia. People die of exposure to the freezing conditions and disease is rife. In these conditions you need to have to will to survive, and for Adam and his family, this is what is keeping them going.
The story is narrated by Adam, so you see everything through his eyes. You feel how much he wants to survive and how important his family is to him. You get a real sense of how desperate their situation gets as time goes by, especially when it comes to food. When a clerk at one of the evacuation centers apologizes to Adam for the lack of food, Adam says ‘He sounded sorry about it but that was no help to us. You couldn’t eat ‘sorry.” You want so much for Adam and his family to survive the war and be able to return home, but you don’t know if their story will have a happy ending.
One of the things that stands out in Melinda’s story is the sense that Adam, his family, and the other refugees around them, hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they’re treated the way they are. Adam says this himself, ‘We were being punished but I hadn’t done anything wrong. None of us had.’ These people have been thrown out of their homes and sent to prison camps for no reason what so ever.
A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a great addition to any home or school library. It’s a war story that hasn’t been told before and it will have an affect on readers of all ages. Stories like Melinda’s help us to remember all those people who died during this horrific period of history and I’ll certainly remember Adam’s story for a long time.
4 out of 5 stars