A way-out looking menial worker catches the attention of a young school boy.
A young boy is obsessed with a woman who works the sandwich bar at a local supermarket. She wears ice-blue eye shadow and handles the sandwiches – putting them into their little plastic bags – with mesmerising dexterity. The boy calls her “Ms Ice Sandwich” and goes almost everyday to buy the cheapest sandwich, an egg one. Ms Ice-Sandwich never looks the boy in the eye, making her almost a deity in his eyes.
At school, the boy has a friend, named Tutti. She’s a bit offbeat herself. When she invites him around to watch a movie, she likes to play over and over her favourite battle scenes and even act them out. When she finds out that her friend is obsessed with Ms Ice Sandwich, she gives him an ultimatum: he must introduce himself. Tutti has a personal philosophy behind this. She believes even the most fleeting relationships should be deepened where possible. But when the boy returns to the supermarket sandwich bar, he discovers that Ms Ice-Sandwich has quit. Has he left things too late?
While ostensibly Ms Ice Sandwich is an adult novel, it can easily be read as children’s fiction. The story is sweet and quirky, while also dealing in a subtle way with themes of death. Both main characters have lost a parent. The boy’s grandmother is also dying. Tutti emphasises the need to make human connections and cherish people – from those closest to us, to even transient acquaintances.
A gentle, somewhat eccentric, but ultimately life affirming story that will leave you with a spring in your step.
Ms Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. Published by Pushkin Press. $19.99
Three young children flee Russian tanks as Hitler loses the Second World War
It's 1945 and the Wolf family is apprehensive, like many of their fellow Prussians. Russian soldiers are advancing; the German army is losing the war. So bad is the German position they are sending out the elderly and under-aged to fight. Eleven-year old Liesl, seven-year-old Otto and toddler Mia have said goodbye to their physically disabled father, as he has been drafted into the war. The family keeps telling themselves everything will be alright, despite the soldiers advancing. Liesl steadfastly believes in the goodness of Hitler, while Otto has had enough and curses the Fuhrer. When the tanks and bombs start rolling in, there's nothing left to do but flee. They grab as much as they can carry and run with their mother (Mama) and grandparents (Oma and Opa).
It's a life of immediate hardships and they soon have to leave Oma and Opa by the roadside. As they traverse rivers covered in ice and wade through forests, they lose sight of their Mama and the three children must fend for themselves. They feel constant hunger, suffer cold and lose energy. Their hunger means they are often reduced to eating slugs and killing wildlife. From time to time they are lucky and find a barn to sleep in and a cow to milk. Often they rely on the rare kindness of strangers.
All during this period Liesl undergoes a conversion, from believer in the essential goodness of Hitler, to the realisation that he is responsible for the most hideous war crimes.
Katrina Nannestad has written an engrossing, nicely paced and plotted children's book that carefully balances its themes of war, hunger and extreme hardship against more uplifting and optimistic notes. We Are Wolves is quite an achievement: ambitious subject matter, smartly worked into a children's adventure story, with instructive lessons on war, politics and the importance of resilience.
We Are Wolves, by Katrina Nannestad. Published by ABC Books. $19.99
North Melbourne Books