The Hunt for David Berman, a debut by Claire Mulligan is an adventure set during World War 2 with a touching bond between two boys from very different families at the centre of its exploration of how war affects families. Although a story set in the past it is a compelling and relevant one with which today’s young readers will empathise.
In Britain Robert, like many children in 1940, has been evacuated from his home in London and is now staying with his grandparents in Scotland while his father is away fighting in the army and his mother working on an important and secret job with the Wrens. Meanwhile in Berlin at the Gestapo headquarters there is concern that an Enigma code book has gone missing and has been hidden in a suitcase. Children have been fleeing Berlin to escape the Nazis carrying with them one small suitcase each. Back in Scotland whilst Robert is exploring the caves on the beach near his grandparents’ farm he discovers a boy hiding in them. David, dirty bedraggled and hungry, is a Kindertransport child fleeing his cruel foster parents. These story threads twine together in an exciting and at times extremely moving adventure as the two boys cope with David’s predicament, news from the front and the appearance of a sinister stranger.
Robert and David are wonderful characters about whom young readers will quickly care and their friendship is at the centre of this story full of rich historical detail and suspense. The assured writing style ensures this has a feel of wartime classics enjoyed by children for many years and the gradual reveal of information, the dual settings and use of flashback will ensure young readers want to read on to find out what happens. There is intrigue, family relationships, loss and courage running through this page turner giving it more layers and depth of meaning. A story with an added poignancy as almost unbelievably Europe once again witnesses children fleeing to safety from war.
This is ultimately a story of hope and the power of friendship, loyalty and helpful kindness to make even the darkest times better. Highly recommended for young readers who enjoy books by Emma Carroll or the historical novels by Tom Palmer.
Guest Post by Claire Mulligan Author of The Hunt for David Berman
In the novel the main character, David, has arrived in Britain from Germany as a Kindertransport child during WW2. Here Claire talks about the important research she did into this movement and how it inspired her writing.
When I started writing The Hunt for David Berman I did quite a lot of general reading around the subject of World War 2 as I wanted the details in the book to be as authentic as possible. When I made the character of David into a Kindertransport child I was brought into a moment in history that was only for a short period of time – from late 1938 to 1940 – but one which had a profound impact on the lives saved and the families who were left behind.
Approximately 10,000 children were saved through the Kindertransport movement – a rescue effort to remove as many predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany and German-occupied territories as possible. In the wider context of the war where one and a half million Jewish children perished, 10,000 may not seem to be a huge number but for every life saved future generations got a chance to live. As I read about the Kindertransport I came across many heartbreaking accounts from the children who had to leave parents, siblings and loved ones behind, and in many cases they were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust. The organisations and agencies responsible had to fund the Kindertransport operation themselves in order that the children were not a financial burden to Britain. Children chosen to travel were from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances – some had been in concentration camps, or were in danger of arrest or deportation, others were orphans.
Children eligible to travel were under the age of 17 and were unaccompanied by adults. They travelled mainly by train with only one piece of luggage and were not allowed to take anything valuable with them. I came across one fantastic story of a child who was determined to bring her stamp collection with her. This would not have been allowed as stamps could be valuable and could be sold on. But she managed to put every single stamp into her officially sealed suitcase and get them to England with her. That delighted me so much I put it into the book and in it David smuggles his beloved stamp collection out of Berlin.
In the book David brings photographs of his family, a notebook to keep as a diary and a stuffed toy bear. These are some of the things that Kindertransport children brought with them, along with practical items like clothing and shoes. Everything had to be packed into a suitcase that a child could manage to carry themselves. The children wore identity labels around their necks with a number on them and the same number was pasted on to their luggage.
Once the children had arrived in England many faced the added difficulty of not being able to speak English. In the book David’s father had taught him a little English but he had to learn the language quickly. Even after reaching the relative safety of England life was difficult for the Kindertransport children. Some of them did not have foster families to come and collect them immediately on arrival and many went to Dovercourt Refugee Camp where they stayed until they were placed with adoptive families. They had to learn to be adaptable – settle into new families, learn a new language, make friends, become accustomed to different customs and foods, all while struggling to retain their own identities and not knowing what had happened to their parents and loved ones back home. In the book David shows himself to be resilient and resourceful, just as the Kindertransport children had to be.
Many of them had left believing that they would see their parents again soon or that they would be reunited after the war. Sadly most children of the Kindertransport who had travelled so far by train, boat and plane never saw their parents again.
There is a real danger that as time marches on the stories of these children will slowly fade. Yet the Kindertransport movement was an act of complete faith – the faith of parents who puttheir children on to trains hoping that the arms of strangers would open to receive them, faith that the hand of war would not touch them, faith that they would be safe in another country. I hope the children who read The Hunt for David Berman understand something of the Kindertransport and the difficulties faced by children during the war, but ultimately I wantthe message to be one of kindness and friendship.
Indeed, in the book David’s immediate future is tied to his friend Robert, someone who has tried to help in so many ways. David, finally, has a chance of a safe place to live with support and friendship from people who value him and we can imagine David feeling ‘at home’ in Robert’s family. One of the joys of writing fiction is being allowed some artistic licence and granting a happy ending!
I hope the book will spark discussion around difficult subjects such as war, The Holocaust, anti-Semitism, refugees (in the past and present day), and how we choose to treat one another. Initially Robert is quick to judge David when he finds out that he’s German – he can’t believe he is friends with the ‘enemy’ but then when he understands a little more about David’s life he realises that he and David are very much alike and he shows himself to be a trusted and loyal friend. I hope that the reader will see that friendship and kindness are so important for all of us and that even small acts of generosity can make a huge difference.
The Hunt for David Berman by Claire Mulligan is published by The Moth today, 5 th May 2022, £8.99 paperback
Thank you very much to Claire for this interesting and thoughtful article. If you have missed any of the previous posts on this tour I can recommend catching up with them and full details are given below.