The Silver Sword, Ian SerraillierThey liked the stories from the Old Testament best. Their favourite was always Daniel in the lion’s den. They enjoyed it just as a story, but for Ruth it had a deeper meaning. She thought of it as the story of their own troubles. The lions were the cold and the hunger and the hardships of their life. If only they were patient and trustful like Daniel, they would be delivered from them. She remembered a picture of Daniel that her mother had once given her. He was standing in the dungeon, with his hands chained behind him and his face lifted towards a small, barred window high above his head. He was smiling and did not notice the lions that prowled about his feet, powerless to touch him. At night she liked to fall asleep with this picture in her mind. She could not always see it clearly. Sometimes Daniel’s face was clouded, and the light from the window fell upon the lions. They were scowling and snarling, and they filled her dreams with terror.”

This is the story of the Balicki family during and immediately after the second world war. The father Joseph is taken to a prison camp for turning a picture of Hitler to the wall in his Warsaw classroom. The mother Margrit, who is Swiss, is conscripted to work as slave labour in the German fields. The children are left – Edek, Ruth and little Bronia – to fend for themselves, living in the woods during summer and wintering in a bombed out cellar. Edek takes primary responsibility for finding food, and is caught smuggling so he too is taken to slave in Germany. Ruth and Bronia eventually fall in with Jan, a vulnerable little boy with a talent for thievery and a gift for befriending animals.

The eponymous silver sword is a device used to tie all the threads together. When Joseph manages to escape from his prison camp and walk all the way to Warsaw, he finds his home bombed and his family gone nobody knows where. In the ruins is a little silver sword, a letter opener, that he had given to his wife years before. He gives this to a boy in the ruins, asking him, if he sees any of the Balicki children, to tell them that he has gone to Switzerland to their grandparents’ house. Traumatised little Jan forgets the details but guards the sword as a precious treasure. When Ruth finds him ill in the street, takes him in, and later recognises the silver sword, they piece together the essentials and know they must leave Warsaw and go to Switzerland. From that point, the sword becomes a kind of talisman, and plays an important part in their journey.

The writing in this story wouldn’t set the world on fire, although its direct simplicity does make it an easy read. Better, the themes of the book – hardship, poverty and death in a cruel world where even little children are left to fend for themselves – are themes not often handled in children’s literature. Certainly this is a very early example of this dark, unflinching realism in a children’s novel. Despite the somewhat implausible happy ending, and the slightly irritating focus on good Christian children, this is an important book, and not in the least patronising. Refreshing.

Here’s a link to Amazon.
My copy came from the library.