Monday, March 07, 2011

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

The Silver Sword
by Ian Serraillier

When I was eleven my school teacher was a Polish woman whose name, even now, I wouldn't attempt to spell. Every Friday afternoon, and many others, we would read together as a class, one page each going round the room. I can still smell the hot dust and paper and the varnish on the school desks raised by a hot sun outside on a summer's afternoon. And I can still remember being transfixed by this book for the weeks it took us to read it as a class.

A family of three Polish children survive the war but have their parents taken away and have to make a thousand mile journey to Switzerland, more in hope than knowledge, as this was where their parents had once said they would meet should they be separated. It's a peculiar book because, even though written for children, it reads more as a documentary than a complete fiction. It is, of course, based on true events but isn't a 'true story'. I can still remember the thrill of a section where the children know that should the American troops find them they will be sent back to Poland, without reaching Switzerland and so they make an escape in canoes in the middle of the night, there was a frisson of excitement as the chapter was read aloud in class. But most of all, I remember developing what I now know would be called a 'crush' on the boy character Jan, the feral, amoral street child that the family befriend and whose cunning and criminal skills aid their survival. It was a strange mixture of wanting really badly for him to be my friend and identifying with him so strongly that I fixated on his name, wanting to change my name to Jan for weeks afterwards.

Last week I saw a copy in a local bookshop and picked it up. Reading it now was a different experience, to be sure, but a powerful one nonetheless: a strange mixture of memories and remembering, tears and wonder. It's a true classic of children's literature and, as ever, this is acknowledged by the emotionless indicator of a high first edition price.

Of course, another reason to love this book is the inky, scribbly and dynamic illustrations by C. Walter Hodges. The drawing of Edek holding onto the bottom of a train to escape from a German slaves labour camp has a real resonance with the danger and drama of the situation I thought.


Paul Brownsey said...

Did you know there was a film version? I saw it as the second feature alongside the first St Trinian's film.

Callum said...

Hi Paul,
Thanks for dropping in. I was aware of two TV series, one in 1957 and the other in 1971, but not of a feature film. Can't find one on IMDB either so I would be interested to hear the details. There is also a musical by Richard Taylor. Sadly, I can find no footage nor stills from either of the TV series online... the Internet is still not the source of all things I suppose...

Paul Brownsey said...

Ouch - memory playing tricks.

What I now think (I must learn to be cautious) was the second feature alongside the first St Trinian's film was not a version of The Silver Sword but Johnny on the Run:

But my memory can, I think, plead this in mitigation, that both the 1953 film and the 1957 TV serial concern Polish children displaced by WWII.

CJ said...

Didn't realise that the illustrations were C Walter Hodges. Love his work, especially on recreating the Globe theatre. Wasn't aware of illustrators' names when I first encountered the book. Book and pictures certainly stick with you. I must admit the straw box used as a slow cooker was the memory trigger that first surfaced. Haven't read it since childhood.

Jordan Murphy said...

I was in the original cast of the Musical written by Richard! Really good fun, great story line !

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