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Black Radishes Library Binding – November 9, 2010
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From School Library Journal
Grade 5–8—After a somewhat slow beginning, this story of the plight of Jews in France from 1940 to 1942 develops into a dramatic tale of courage and determination. Gustave Becker, 11, lives in Paris, enjoying his time with his friend Marcel and his cousin Jean Paul. Then his parents suddenly announce that the family will be moving to Saint-Georges, which they believe to be safer, until they can get visas to go to America. A more even pace follows as Gustave deals with being in a new place and hiding the fact that he is Jewish. He is taunted by Phillipe, a bully who has a visceral hatred of Jews. Gustave develops a friendship with Nicole, a Catholic girl who turns out to be the daughter of Resistance fighters. The story becomes exciting when Gustave takes over her Resistance task when she is sick. The black radishes of the title refer to bribes his father tries to make with German border guards between the occupied and unoccupied zones. Meyer shines light on the bravery of Resistance fighters, and her story gradually crescendos into a gripping read comparable to Marilyn Sachs's classic A Pocket Full of Seeds (Doubleday, 1972), Carol Matas's Greater Than Angels (S & S, 1998), and Norma Fox Mazer's Good Night, Maman (Harcourt, 1999).—Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ
(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
The story begins in Paris in 1940, when discrimination against Jews in France has become more blatant and more dangerous for Gustave and his parents. Hiding their religious identity, they move to a small village, where they wait for their immigration visas. Soon the border of German-occupied France is established near their home. Like his father, Gustave begins to take uncommon risks, crossing over to find food and helping those who want to escape. Partly based on Meyer’s father’s experiences, the story derives its credibility from the vivid details of daily life and the depiction of changes slowly taking place within Gustave, who balances the occasional cruelty he endures with the friendship and trust he sometimes finds. The novel’s tension builds slowly, reaching its crescendo when Gustave masters his fears in the face of mortal danger. This fine first novel could be read in conjunction with The Good Liar (1999), which takes place in occupied France during WWII. Grades 4-7. --Carolyn Phelan --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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The book opens in Paris in 1940 with 11-year-old Gustave and his pals on a scavenger hunt with their Boy Scout troop. It's all pretty ordinary with the war far away - except that Uncle David is a soldier, the Eiffel Tower has been painted brown so it won't stand out from the air, and someone has scrawled "Jews Out of France!" on the street.
Gustave's family is Jewish, his parents more clear-sighted than most, and they decide to move south to a village they think will be safe should the war come closer. When a few months later Germany invades, the family joins thousands of other people fleeing for Spain. Ultimately, they have to turn back, but not before the jammed road they're on is strafed by Nazi planes.
In the aftermath, Gustave sees motionless people lying in a field, then "something large and dark" lying in the road. "It was Jacques, the pony. He had been shot. His beautiful brown head was thrown back, and a pool of dark blood spread out around him...."
The passage is a good measure of how Meyer portrays the horror of war at the appropriate level -- honestly but without inducing nightmares. The pony's dead, and its owner is heartbroken, but when Gustave's family finds a crying toddler alone, he is soon reunited with his uninjured mom.
Most of the book concerns Gustave's life in the village as France falls, the Germans come closer, and Gustave worries that people will find out his family is Jewish. In the most suspenseful scenes, Gustave's resourceful father braves German checkpoints and crosses into occupied France to bring back food and, eventually, people.
Ultimately, the book's focus is not breathless drama but how life goes on, even with war and its atrocities looming. The detail of the black radishes is particularly telling. Before I started reading, I assumed they were symbolic -- scorched earth, evil, the bitterness of hunger.
In fact, they are real radishes - a peppery treat that Gustave likes with bread, and German soldiers like salted with beer. Gustave makes good use of them - and so does the author. Like the wartime experience of refugees in France, the radishes may at first seem strange and foreign, but in the end, Meyer brings them home.
Here's my son's book report on the book: "This is a realistic novel about growing up in France in WW2. It has some sad parts, such as when Jean-Paul leaves his friends in Paris, and some terrifying scenes, like when Jean-Paul is travelling and the road he is on is attacked by German planes. This is a suspenseful and exciting read full of mystery and friendship."