‘Once & Then’ by Morris Gleitzman

Once&Then

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 249 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Morris Gleitzman is an English-born Australian-based writer with more than 20 childrens’ books to his name. This book, packaged as an “adult edition” brings together his two Holocaust novels — Once, first published in 2005, and Then, first published in 2008 — for the first time. Fittingly, it’s released today (August 6) to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.

I’ll have to admit that when this one arrived on my doorstep a month or so back I was a little skeptical: surely it was just jumping on the Holocaust bandwagon already set in place by John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (both of which I loved)? What could yet another childrens’ novel tell us about the Jewish experience during the Second World War? Hadn’t it all been said before? And why wasn’t Penguin re-issuing Esther Hautzig’s true life story The Endless Steppe instead, a book I adored when I was a pre-teen and still remember with an aching fondness?

Casting my cynicism aside and holed up in my sick bed bed, I decided to give this one a go because it probably wouldn’t tax the brain matter too much. I figured I’d probably read the first 50 pages and then make a judgement call. I got so swept up in the story about a 10-year-old Jewish orphan, Felix, and his gutsy little non-Jewish friend, Zelda, that I read the book cover-to-cover in a matter of hours. And then wished I hadn’t ploughed through it so furiously because I wanted to spend more time in the company of these wonderful, inspiring characters.

A fresh perspective on the Holocaust

The beauty of Once & Then is its ability to present the Holocaust in a fresh way — that is, from the perspective of a young boy who fails to comprehend the violence and brutality around him. Of course, Boyne does this in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but Gleitzman tackles it from a slightly different angle: a Jewish boy who doesn’t even remotely understand that it is his very religion that puts him in danger.

Indeed, when the book opens Felix’s naivety is crystal clear: he truly believes he is only residing in a Catholic orphanage, not because his parents are dead, but because they are trying to sort out their problems as Jewish booksellers before coming back to rescue him.

There were two reasons Mum and Dad chose this orphanage, because it was the closest and because of Mother Minka’s goodness. When they were bringing me here, they told me how in all the years Mother Minka was a customer of their bookshop, back before things got difficult for Jewish booksellers, she never once criticised a single book.

His innocence is all the more apparent when you realise he’s being carrying this false hope with him for three years and eight months, and yet it remains undiminished. His only fear is that when his parents return they won’t recognise him because he’s changed so much in that time.

But the tables are turned when a group of Nazis arrive one day to burn all the Jewish books in the orphanage’s library. Felix suddenly realises that he needs to rescue his parents, not the other way around.

There’s a gang of thugs going round the country burning Jewish books. Mum and Dad, wherever in Europe they are, probably don’t even know their books are in danger.
I have to try and find Mum and Dad and tell them what’s going on.
But first I must get to the shop and hide the books.

This sets Felix off on an amazing voyage of discovery in which he escapes the orphanage and begins a new life on the run. Along the way, he collects a sidekick, a six-year-old girl, whom he rescues from a burning farm. Together Felix and Zelda form a formidable duo, a kind of brother-sister act that endures all kinds of highs and lows as they try to survive everything the Nazi regime has to throw at them.

A page-turning adventure

To supply any more detail would spoil the plot, because the enjoyment of reading Once & Then is letting the adventure unfurl page by page, and experiencing the adrenalin rushes, the shocks and the tears that this brings. There’s plenty of laughs in the book, too, a delightfully naive child-like humour that softens the blows of what would otherwise be a terribly dark and depressing story.

But the best part, especially for book lovers, is the infectious enthusiasm for storytelling that exists within Felix and his undying love for British writer Richmal Crompton and her humorous Just William stories.

I clamber over the beds and squeeze onto the floor and take a book from the shelf. Just William by Richmal Crompton. It’s still one of my favourite books in the whole world. As I open it I try not to remember Mum and Dad reading it to me.
Instead, I read a bit to myself. About William’s dog. He’s called Jumble and he’s a mixture of about a hundred different dogs and William loves him even when he pees in William’s new boots.
Mum and Dad said I can have a dog like Jumble one day.
Stop it.
Stop thinking about them.
William is training Jumble to be a pirate. That’s what I love about William. He always stays hopeful, and no matter how bad things get, no matter how much the world turns upside down, his mum and dad never die.
Not ever.
I know I should be getting back, but I can’t get up at the moment. All I can do is stay here on the floor, with Just William and Zelda’s carrot, thinking about Mum and Dad and crying.

Once & Then is a powerful story about the strength and resilience of the human spirit. It’s about courage and hope, and surviving against the odds. And while it tackles one of the darkest times in 20th century history, Gleitzman does it sensitively without losing any of the important detail. There’s plenty of death here, and cruelty, but it’s not sensationalist or gratuitous. “This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable,” he writes in his afterward. I think he’s achieved it.

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21 thoughts on “‘Once & Then’ by Morris Gleitzman

  1. This sounds like a book that I will love. I thought The Book Thief was over-hyped and wasn’t amazed when I read it but I think that wonderful things can be done with the subject matter. I also love books about books.
    I hope you’re feeling better and sorry you can’t make it for tonight’s book group.

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  2. That sounds very interesting. I’ll have to put it on my to-buy list. Another book that tackles the topic from a similar perspective is Imre Kertesz’s Fateless…as far as I can remember. You read the book and you, as a reader, are very aware of what’s going on but the protagonist just seems going through his life, making decisions, chosing paths with hell going on around him. I remember it being very powerful when I read it.
    Still haven’t read The Boy In Stripped Pajamas…must really get around to it. But I did enjoy The Book Thief a lot…interesting perspective.
    Hope you feel better!

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  3. Imre Kertesz’s Fateless is one of those books I keep meaning to read, as I’ve only ever heard good things about it. I remember John Self reviewing it on his blog and thinking I must get around to reading that at some point!
    Surprised you haven’t read Boy in Striped Pyjamas yet — think you’d enjoy it. Plus it’s super quick to read, as it’s a thin book with large text.

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  4. If you don’t mind me saying so, this is rather an odd comment given you are a book store and have this particular title in stock (I checked)! Or was this simply a plug for the shop??

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  5. Hi Kim, hope you’re feeling better by now!
    ‘Once’ is a brilliant book and while I wouldn’t say that it’s ‘popular’ compared to other books by Gleitzman, there’s a certain kind of sensitive, thoughtful student who discovers it in our school library who will always want to talk about it afterwards. I have also heard it as an audio book, read by Gleitzman himself and the narration is just perfect. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a engaging parable, but it’s not in the same league as ‘Once’.
    BTW Have you ever read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit?
    Lisa in Oz

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  6. Hi Lisa, I’ve heard of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit but never read it. I assume because you’ve mentioned it that it’s very good, no?
    I enjoyed the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and gave it a four-star review. I even went out and saw the movie in the cinema, something I don’t normally do. And I thought the film was terrific.
    But when I read the Gleitzman this week, there seemed to be something less contrived about the story and on that basis alone I thought it better than Boyne’s book. Although, it’s hard to make direct comparisons because they are written from two different sides of the story: one is the son of a Nazi, the other is the son of a Jew. Both should be recommended reading for kids.

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  7. Once and Then are the best books I’ve ever read. Although it was quite confronting I think it was a really good book and it got my imagination going. While I was reading this book I tried to find out more about the holocaust and the nazis.

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  8. Thanks for your comment, Fergus. Glad you enjoyed these books, they’re rather eye-opening, but important, I think, especially if this is the first time you’ve come across the holocaust and Nazism.

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  9. My friends have all read this and said it is addictive! They couldn’t put it down and said it was the saddest book they’d ever read.

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  10. I just read ‘Once’ and ‘Then’ – beautiful and hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing at Zelda saying ‘any time he sees a Nazi, he can just do a poo.’
    At first I was a bit distracted by Felix – he seemed very much like Colin from ‘Two Weeks with the Queen’: naive, likeable. He also seemed a bit out of context in his way of thinking/speaking. But soon enough I got caught up in it.
    Great stuff!

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  11. Hi my name is Ursula
    I am an 11 year old student and i have been reading some of books my fav is once & then it was a fantastic book i feel so sorry for Felix and Zelda i hope they will find a loving mum and dad
    from ursula
    ps:please can you write back thank you

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  12. Hello Ursula, thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this book — it’s such a wonderful story and the characters experience so much danger and adventure, don’t they? You might like to read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, because it’s a little bit similar — but it’s very sad, so make sure you have some tissues handy!

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  13. this book is amazing it made me cry and everyone MUST read it!!! it is the best book i have ever read and it haas changed my life!!

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