Reading Level: 10-12
Appropriate for: ages 12-up
Bottom Line: After escaping from the soviet prison camp that comprised his whole world, a 12-year-old boy must come to terms with what it means to be free.
The Danish journalist, Anne Holm, wrote her novel titled simply David, partly because she thought children “got such a lot of harmless entertainment, and not nearly enough of real, valuable literature.” Published in the USA as North to Freedom in 1963, the novel received widespread praise, but deserves to be better known today. It is “real, valuable literature” in every sense.
On the night David escaped from the prison camp, he was equipped with only the most rudimentary instructions: go south to Salonika, stowaway on a boat bound for Italy, then head north until he came to Denmark. “You’ll be safe there,” the man told him. But why was the man, who David hated so much he refused to dignify him with a name, helping him escape? That’s only one of the many questions David can’t answer. Others are, What is his nationality? What happened to his parents? Why is he in prison in the first place? The author’s great achievement is drawing the reader into a mind of profound deprivation. Deprivation is not the same as loss, for David, who has spent almost all of his twelve years in a Soviet-bloc prison camp, can’t mourn for the love and family he’s never known. Though equipped by his mentor Johannes with a moral sense, his vision and emotional range are stunted, and he knows nothing of context. Even the colors that surround him are limited mostly to grays and browns. The reader begins within the same constricted point of view and must put two and two together along with David.
As he makes his way toward Denmark, it becomes clear that he’s on a spiritual journey as much as a physical one. From blind acceptance of his lot, to a growing amazement at the world, to the adoption–and rejection–of various notions of God, David is discovering himself as much as the world. The main lesson from prison was that one cannot get something for nothing, and he frames his prayers accordingly. His rudimentary moral understanding has also made him self-righteous, and he feels justified in not forgiving: “You must always hate what was bad or else you grew just like them.”
But mere suffering does not justify anyone. The boy needs grace as much as his tormentors, and grace comes in the unexpected form of a lowly creature, formerly despised and rejected, doing for David what he could not do for himself. “Oh, but he had never wanted anyone to suffer for his sake . . . and he had never been able to do anything for it. So one could get something for nothing after all?” The answer, which finally leads him home, is Yes.
The book was re-published under the title I Am David, in connection with the 2003 movie adaptation. And please note: you may like it better than your kids do!
Overall Rating: 5 (out of 5)
Categories: Middle Grades, Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Character Values, Starred Review