The cover of The Secret of the Village Fool displays Renné Benoit‘s gentle style of illustration and invites the reader into an inspiring and powerful tale.
But it also shows the anxiety and uneasiness of Milek and Munio, two young boys in their village in Poland during WWII.
Their neighbour, Anton, also looks upward, to the warplanes above.
In the background are the small homes in the village, behind one of which is a root cellar. The boys cannot possibly understand the importance that this root cellar will have for them. Nor do they anticipate that this neighbour will play an integral role in their survival.
On the first page of the story, the boys are carrying soup and bread and old clothes to this neighbour, and they look serious, sulky even: ordinary children.
Ordinary and real: this is a true story.
In the final pages are photographs, images of the real boys and neighbour, which update the story for the reader in such a simple, forthright manner that it made me cry.
Sometimes we forget that true stories like this are actually true. There is a straight line from these young boys pre-war, through their wartime experiences, to the photographic record which follows the narrative. When the reality of that fully strikes the reader, it’s overwhelming.
This is why people tell stories. This is why we read them. To remind us of the wonder in our world.
But of course that straight line only really exists for the reader via Rebecca Upjohn‘s storytelling (these people’s real lives would have spiralled and twisted as do our own).
In the story, readers meet the boys and their mother, and they are introduced to Anton, who is tending his garden. “His patched-up clothes smelled of earth, and his eyes were as bright as a bird’s.”
Another neighbour passes by and warns Anton about associating with the boys: “Watch out who you choose as your friends, Suchinski…[t]hose boys are Jews.”
And, over dinner, Anton considers what he has heard. “Adolf Hitler, the ruler of Germany, wanted to conquer all of Europe. Hitler and his Nazi soldiers hated Jewish people.”
Anton covers his mouth with one hand, and he “sat in his thinking chair long after dark, worrying, worrying”.
And, that summer, the war comes to the village. The people in the pictures now wear armbands, and there is a darkness which hovers in the background of all of the images.
“We are going to prepare a hiding place for you. A place where no one will ever, ever find you. We are gong to dig down into the earth and make you a new home under the ground.”
It’s all there: the planning, the dramatic events which heralded the need to put the plan into place, the digging and creating of it, the daily support required to maintain those in hiding, Anton’s motivation to instigate — and then sustain — this act of bravery.
Rebecca Upjohn’s language is simple, with the wartime drama summarized in an honest but general tone: “Outside, the war went on and on, with the drone of planes and the crack of gunfire.”
Fearful and tense moments are sketched boldly and rely as much on dialogue as on description. There are whispers and whimpers, a bullet and a ribbon, rags and uniforms, barking dogs and riddles: the stuff of sorrow alongside the stuff of joy.
But what truly brings home the story? The seven pages titled “What Happened After”.
This portion of the work succinctly summarizes the events of 1944-5 and then moves to 1949, through 2001 (culminating in the recommendation of a 2012 work published by one of the surviving family members: The Wheel of Life: A Memoir).
The Secret of the Village Fool is written so that children ages 7-9 can appreciate the tale too, but it’s a story that will touch the hearts of all readers: it is a triumph of compassion, and a true one at that.