It’s another book set in World War 2 today, this time set in Australia (and I’ve got ANOTHER World War 2 story for you next week – it must be something in the air), and this time aimed at a middle grade audience. We received The Blue Cat by prolific Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
A boy stood in the playground under the big fig tree. ‘He can’t speak English,’ the children whispered.
Sydney, 1942. The war is coming to Australia – not only with the threat of bombardment, but also the arrival of refugees from Europe. Dreamy Columba’s world is growing larger. She is drawn to Ellery, the little boy from far away, and, together with her highly practical best friend Hilda, the three children embark on an adventure through the harbour-side streets – a journey of discovery and terror, in pursuit of the mysterious blue cat …
The Blue Cat is told from the point of view of Columba, a young girl whose world is slowly being encroached upon by the war. Everything that her headmaster assures the children could never possibly happen, seems to be coming about. Her friend’s brothers are stuck as prisoners of war. Air raid sirens interrupt otherwise lazy afternoons. The spectre of lost mothers and lost homes looms large in the figure of Ellery, a German boy who has come to attend Columba’s school.
There is certainly an atmosphere of anticipation seeping through this novel and I was constantly poised for some significant action to take place. Rather, the story unfolds gently through Columba’s interactions with her brash, larger-than-life friend Hilda and the silent Ellery.
Atmospheric as Dubosarsky’s writing may be, I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing from this book. The first candidate for the MIA label is the titular cat – he makes the briefest of brief appearances and doesn’t seem, as the blurb suggests, to be keeping any secrets at all. Rather, he seems to be acting like an ordinary cat: flighty, unpredictable and completely indifferent as to whether humans pay attention to him or not.
The second thing I felt that was missing here was some significant event to provide a point around which Columba or one of the other characters could experience some growth or change or…something. Columba, as a narrator, is more of a bystander than an agent in her own life and while there are plenty of us who live through certain historical events without having them touch us in a significant way, I’m not sure that this perspective is the most effective upon which to base a protagonist.
One thing I did love about the book was the inclusion of primary source materials. Instead of illustrations, every few pages a newspaper article, photograph or advertisement from the time pops up and I found these far more interesting and engaging than the actual story. I also adored the poem by Friedrich Ruckert that was included (with a translation from the original German) as an afterword.
As I mentioned before, I spent the whole book waiting for something to happen and then…it just finished. There is a certain amount of pathos in Columba’s growing understanding of loss and change, but I’m not sure that young readers would necessarily pick up on the subtleties of this. I finished the book not hating it, but wondering why I had bothered, because none of the characters seemed to have undergone any significant change in outlook or personality by the end of the story. It just felt like a way of passing the time.
I’m going to submit this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge under category #10, a book with a cat on the cover. You can check out my progress toward the challenge here.
Until next time,