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“Richly satisfying and utterly absorbing. . . . Fascinating and original. . . . Charlesworth tells the story so artfully that she brings an entirely fresh perspective to bear on familiar psychological territory.” –Robert MacNeil, The Washington Post Book World
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to broaden your group’s discussion of Monique Charlesworth’s moving, indelible, and exquisite novel of loss and survival, The Children’s War.
It is the spring of 1939, and Germany has become a ticking time bomb for anyone of Jewish heritage. Desperate to find a temporary haven for her daughter Ilse, Lore Lindemann sends the teenager to Morocco, where she will live with her aunt and uncle, far from Hitler’s hub of power. So begins the adventure that will reconfigure Ilse’s reality forever.
Under the doting gaze of her charismatic uncle, Ilse steps into a life of unimagined comfort and childish delights in Morocco. Yet simmering under the façade of music clubs and swimming pools, ice cream and private school, is the all-consuming threat of a world war, whispered about in fragments that reveal the cracks in Ilse’s family structure. All too soon she is sent away again, this time to Paris, which teeters on the cusp of German occupation. There, Ilse struggles to make a palatable life with her father, Otto, an intractable, brooding radical who is slowly succumbing to despair over the dissolution of his marriage and the political entropy swallowing Europe. When Otto is incarcerated, Ilse (now ostensibly orphaned) must forge a new life on her own. Masquerading as a French national, befriended by prostitutes and underground Resistance fighters, she survives in the shadowy margins of a French society roiling under the pressure of Nazism.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Ilse has become a mythical figure to a young man named Nicolai, living in an affluent neighborhood of Hamburg. His governess is none other than Ilse’s mother, Lore, a woman paralyzed with remorse and fear ever since she sent her daughter away. Nicolai, a reluctant member of the Nazi youth corps, struggles with his secret revulsion for the Reich, even as his peers get sucked into the rising tide of German nationalism. As his comfortable childhood swiftly devolves around him, Nicolai harnesses photography as a lifeline, his darkroom images offering him the candid immediacy and logic that are no longer accessible in war-choked German life. Obsessed with Lore’s quiet tragedy, Nicolai dreams of the lost daughter named Ilse, conjuring an imaginary kinship with her and willing an irrational happy ending for them all.
In controlled, gorgeously precise prose, The Children’s War presents a refreshingly oblique angle on the horrors of Hitler’s rise to power and the ensuing world conflict. Through two unforgettable, carefully crafted young protagonists, author Monique Charlesworth reveals a child’s-eye view of the vertiginous loss of control inherent in war–and the hidden reserves of strength that mark survivors.
1. As Ilse waits for her Red Cross escort in Marseilles, she mentally reviews the city guidebook she has memorized, in the hopes of doing some sightseeing on her way out of town. What does this episode reveal about Ilse’s character? What subsequent events does it foreshadow?
2. Ilse is hurt and shocked by Toni’s crass assessment of her family’s business failures and her parents’ ruinous marriage, and later, by Toni’s insistence that Ilse return to Europe. Why, then, does Ilse conjure fond memories of Toni and try to reach her throughout the novel? What is at the root of Toni’s pull on her imagination? How does “Toni’s terrible straightforwardness” [p. 58] influence Ilse as she enters adulthood?
3. Nicolai overhears his father lament, “I’m passing myself off as something I’m not” [p. 36] during one of many arguments with his wife about patriotism. How is this statement echoed in Nicolai’s own experiences? Does it affect his respect for his father?
4. Ilse’s relationship with Otto is based almost entirely in her imagination, since they engage in little dialogue. “It seemed to her that just one level under the darkness that shrouded him there had to be a huge golden space, full of light. This space, which could not be seen from the outside, contained all the love he had for both of them but in these circumstances could not be expressed” [p. 90]. Does Otto confirm this hypothesis at any point? How does Ilse view his suicidal idealism?
5. Willy argues that religion “doesn’t matter. It’s the great tragedy of the twentieth century that it does,” echoing Otto’s assertion that “religion was irrelevant in the twentieth century” [p. 55]. Is Ilse’s obsession with the Catholic faith a direct rebellion against these two father figures? If not, what is the source of her fascination? Are her church rituals a product of faith, or are they spurred by superstition? Is her desire to be baptized motivated by self-preservation as the priest suspects?
6. Nicolai describes the Jungvolk summer camp as a near collision with obliteration: “They blurred together, the shorts above bony knees the same, even the backs of their necks and haircuts seemingly identical, so that he no longer knew which his troop was or barely who he himself might be. In younger, sadder years, camp week had passed in terror at this uniformity. He had been on constant alert, fearful that if he once ducked into the wrong tent, he might find himself forever trapped in somebody else’s life” [p. 109]. What is the meaning of this passage? Is it a commentary on German pre war culture or on herd mentality in general? Does Nicolai escape this dreaded uniformity?
7. What aspects of Francois’s character inspire Ilse’s steadfast love? What does he offer her emotionally? How do her feelings for him evolve over the course of the novel?
8. Why is Nicolai obsessed with the stalled campaign on the Eastern Front and with bringing it to his family’s attention? Are his father’s maxims–“Bad thoughts and ideas expand into the air and then they choke us” [p. 260], and “Honour’s a luxury we don’t have. We’re living the time of dishonour” [p. 261]–meant to silence Nicolai’s opinions?
9. This novel is unique in that the parallel story lines never intersect. While Nicolai actively imagines Ilse, Ilse is unaware of Nicolai’s existence; only after learning of the Hamburg firestorm does she muse, “There had been children in that house, but she would never know anything about them” [p. 347]. Could Ilse’s story stand alone as a novel? Is the failure of Ilse and Nicolai to connect used as a literary device? If so, what does it signify?
10. The Children’s War investigates the power of war to warp and rewire everyday notions of morality. Can Lore’s decision to part ways with Ilse be considered immoral, considering the anguish it causes her child? What about Otto’s decision to destroy Lore’s letters? When Francois allows a child prisoner to be tortured to death in front of him, rather than spill secrets that will lead to the imprisonment and possible death of hundreds of compatriots, where does he fall on the moral spectrum?
11. Nicolai’s feelings for Lore straddle a divide between the infantile and the erotic. Is this a one-way relationship, or is Lore emotionally engaged with him? To what extent is Nicolai seeking a refuge from his own icy, unreliable mother?
12. The novel is rife with marital wrangling: Ilse’s mother resents her husband’s obstinate political passion; Nicolai’s mother resents her husband’s embarrassing political apathy; Toni forbids Willy to join the foreign legion and deserts him when he does; and at least two of the spouses have extramarital affairs. How do their observations of these couples shape Ilse’s and Nicolai’s understanding of romantic relationships?
13. What symbolic role does Nicolai’s photography play in the text? As the novel ends, and he departs the ruins of Hamburg with the remaining members of his family, Nicolai no longer carries his camera. Why does he give it up?
14. Albert Rothberg functions as an archetypal avuncular eccentric, something along the lines of The Nutcracker’s Drosselmeyer. What does he teach Ilse about art, loyalty, and survival? Does she find his lessons enduring?
15. Ilse blames herself for her father’s disappearance when she discovers that he is captured while attempting to purchase an exit visa she had begged for: “In these slow hours her wickedness lay heavily in the corners of the room. She had disobeyed him” [p. 203]. Does she ever recover from this sense of guilt? What accounts for the sudden, uncharacteristic bout of energy that leads Otto to his demise?
16. The Children’s War is punctuated with poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Heinrich Heine. What purpose do the poems serve? Are they used in concert with, or counterpoint to, each other? Why did the author choose these two particular poets?
17. After years of yearning to be cherished like a child again, Ilse realizes that she is unable to attain Francois’s romantic attention specifically because he considers her to be just that. Where else does irony play a pivotal role in the narrative?
18. A major theme in the novel is the devastation that results from parental failure. Ilse and Nicolai both hunger for present, compassionate mothers and focused, sheltering fathers. Both end up cobbling together a parental presence in their lives, composed of memories, self-nurturing, and the kindness of other adults. How is this theme enhanced by the backdrop of war? To what extent does this theme stand alone as a narrative structure?
J. G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun; Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong; Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl; Nancy Huston, The Mark of the Angel; Ian McEwan, Atonement; Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces; Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient; Bernhard Schlink, The Reader; Rachel Seiffert, The Dark Room; Kate Walbert, The Gardens of Kyoto.
Monique Charlesworth was born in Birkenhead, England, and has lived in France, Germany, and Hong Kong. She has worked as a journalist and a screenwriter for both film and television, and is the author of three previous novels: The Glass House, Life Class, and Foreign Exchange. She lives with her husband and two children in London.