When I was growing up, I was attracted to books about children facing very difficult times and finding a way to thrive. There was a fair amount of change and insecurity in my growing up — my father died when I was two, my mother moved her three preschool children to New York City so that she could pursue a Library Science degree, remarried when I was 6, divorced when I was 13, and changed professions when I was 17 — each event causing a major move. I went to 8 different schools in 5 towns, 4 states and 2 countries before I graduated from high school. Looking back, things turned out reasonably well and I gained a lot of resilience by dealing with the many moves. I learned, for example, never to judge how I felt about a new town until I’d been there at least 3 months because I always felt disoriented and lonely in a new place. But along the way, when I didn’t know how things would turn out, it was comforting to read about children who came successfully through much greater insecurity.
The Ark and its sequel, Rowan Farm, by Margot Benary-Isbert are about a German family facing the years right after the end of WWII. They are refugees, having moved several times from their original home in Silesia in east Germany. The father is missing, probably a prisoner of war in Russia. They hope they’ve left enough pointers along their way that he will be able to find them. One of the children was shot by soldiers during the war. The other 4 children range in age from 6 to 16. In the first chapter, they find themselves in a new city quartered with an unwilling landlady and starting to scrounge again for food, fuel, blankets, clothes and work. Everything is in short supply, rationed and involving long waits in line. The older children have put their own dreams on hold to help their mother manage. The younger ones have few memories of their settled home and comfortable life before the war, and so view the changes with more zest and adventurousness.
Over the course of the two books, the older children, Mathias and Margaret, find jobs working on a farm not far out in the country where the farm owner, Mrs. Almut, raises milk sheep, registered Great Danes, and various fruit and vegetable crops. Mrs. Almut had acquired a railroad car before the war that Margaret and Mathias turn into a small home and eventually bring the rest of the family out to join them.
Many small stories work out, people returning home, searching for missing family members, coming to terms with anger and grief, dealing with conflicts between the needs of city folk for food and the resentment of farmers when their animals and crops are requisitioned.
The Lechows face births and deaths. When their father finally finds them, they are grown up beyond his expectation, and he has a hard time re-entering the family. Each family member takes part in the first steps to rebuild Germany, all the red tape and shortages and conflicts. The youngest child and his school mates play a role in resolving the conflicts between original residents and the continuing stream of refugees.
Both of my children found these books engrossing. They loved to hear about life on the farm, baby animals being born. They were amazed by ingenuity the Lechows used to face the hardships of their lives.
The Ark and Rowan Farm are out of print now, but still available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Recently I’ve had discussions with people who are worried about whether today’s young people have the gumption to face hard times. At least partly based on these books, I believe that people can rise to meet the demands of their times. Before the war, the Lechows lived a comfortable middle class life. They had no idea what they could do when times got really hard. Neither do we.