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.