Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stones in Water by Donna Jo Napoli

Stones in Water by Donna Jo Napoli is a young adult novel set in Europe during World War II that focuses on Roberto, a young boy from a small village in Venice, Italy, who is captured by the Germans at a cinema in Mestre. One minute, Roberto, his older brother Sergio, and his friends Memo and Samuele are hoping to enjoy an American western, and the next minute, they're being carted by train to a work camp far away from home and fighting for their lives.

Roberto is separated from Sergio and Memo, but luckily he and Samuele manage to stay together. Since the round up, Samuele has been going by the name Enzo to hide the fact that he is a Jew.

"They can't kill someone just for being Jewish."

"Listen to yourself." Enzo's voice grew hoarse. "Your insomnia -- my nightmares -- they don't come from nowhere. They killed the boys on the train just for wanting to go home. They killed that boy at the first work camp just for fainting."

...Roberto shook his head now. He wouldn't believe Enzo's words. He couldn't. "My father brings home the newspaper every day. There was nothing in them about killing healthy Jews."

"Some news doesn't get printed."

"But something like that, people would know. People would talk about it."

"Jews talk about it." Enzo rubbed his nose and looked away. "It hasn't been going on all that long. It started in the spring. Death camps. They're in Poland, I think." The words came out with a slow deliberateness. Totally matter of fact, as though they weren't the worst words in the world. "Jews are moved from the work camps to the death camps. There's a work camp near Munich." Enzo looked back at Roberto. "When our train pulled up to the Munich station, I figured I'd die there." Enzo's voice held the same tone it had when he came out of the water yesterday -- the tone that was so terrible. The tone of resignation. (pages 60-61)
Roberto is an innocent young boy, but he learns right away the importance of quick thinking. He helps Enzo hide the fact that he is Jewish, and he shares his meager food rations with Enzo when one of the other boys discovers Enzo's secret. When he and the other boys are forced to build a holding pen for Polish Jews, Roberto slips food through the fence to a young girl and her little sister, and he learns to steal clothes and shoes from the dead -- including dead German soldiers -- to keep warm during the brutal winter months. But his strength and maturity are put to the ultimate test in the Ukraine, when he escapes from a work camp and attempts to make his way back to Venice.

Stones in Water is a heartbreaking story of innocence lost to the brutality of war. Roberto's eyes are opened wide to the true horrors of war, and he must rely on strength he never knew he had when he is on the run alone. I found myself tearing up when reading about the cold nights in the work camps, with Enzo telling Roberto stories from the Old Testament to put him to sleep. My heart broke for the characters not shown in the book, particularly Roberto's parents, who must have been crushed to learn of their sons' capture and agonized over whether they would ever be reunited.

The book is geared toward 8- to 12-year-old readers, with the war shown through young eyes. Roberto learns about the death camps from his friend, and his thoughts are those of a young boy, which will help young readers put themselves in Roberto's shoes. There are scenes in which children are beaten, even murdered, at the hands of the Germans, and while these scenes are not overly graphic, I would recommend this book only for mature readers in the intended age group. In my opinion, this is more of a "grown up" children's book about the war than Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, in that more details are provided about the evils of war without overwhelming children with intense, graphic scenes of violence. Napoli gets the point across in as gentle a manner as possible while staying true to the darkness and harshness of the events depicted.

Stones in Water is a fast, engaging read, and I flew through the 209 pages in a day. It was interesting to see in the acknowledgments that the story is based "loosely (very, very loosely) on experiences of Guido Fullin during World War II." I wish Napoli would have said what parts of the story were true and what parts were fiction, as I always find that fascinating, but the story was exciting nonetheless. However, I was a bit disappointed with the ending. It wasn't a bad ending -- there is a bit of hope after all, and Roberto shows much growth in character -- but instead of hinting toward a new story, I wish Napoli would have resolved some of the loose ends. Still, Stones in Water is a worthwhile read, and readers both young and old can learn something from Roberto's story.

Stones in Water is the 18th book I've completed for the World War II reading challenge at War Through the Generations. I just can't seem to stop myself, and I have tons more WWII books sitting on my shelf.

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of Stones in Water.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds great. I really wasn't all that impressed with Number the Stars, and so have been looking for a YA book on this topic that is better. Thanks for the review!

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like a good book! I think the WWII challenge is going to be the first one I will actually complete!

Serena said...

Sounds like a good book. Did The Girl read this one with you? Or do you think its too "mature" for her?

18 books for WWII reading go girl.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Unfortunately, I think alot of young people had to grow up quickly back then. They saw things a child should never see, but amazingly, some came out very stable, sound adults. I'm slowly easing my kids into these books. You're right, Number the Stars is pretty gentle.

Staci said...

Love your review on this one Anna. I'll have to remember it for future reference when I get back to school. I almost always go to Number the Stars, but this one sounds like a read that boys would enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Really nice review. But I always find it difficult to read war themed books , because it is so painful at times to read thru the details of that period .

Blodeuedd said...

Very heavy topic for such young kids, if they wrote about killings too. But should be learnt and read

Laughing Stars said...

My teenage daughter read this book, and she liked it MUCH better than Number the Stars. However, she said it wasn't really a "kids" book because of the intense themes.

Anonymous said...

I don't tend to read war books, but the age it's geared to caught my eye. I wonder if my daughter would read it with me. On the other hand, maybe we should try Number the Stars first.

Ana S. said...

I've loved what I've read by Napoli, and I had no idea she had written about WWII. I'll definitely keep an eye out for this.

Anna said...

~rhapsodyinbooks: Number the Stars to me was one of those children's books that isn't so gripping for adults, though I do recommend it as an introduction to WWII for young readers. Stones in Water was one that didn't keep reminding me that it was for young readers.

~bermudaonion: Great! I'm glad you're working your way through the challenge.

~Serena: No, The Girl didn't read this one with me, but I would let her read it if she wanted to.

~Sandy: My daughter was immediately interested in WWII history when she discovered that we were planning the reading challenge. She read a chapter of Number the Stars and it didn't grab her. Maybe she'll want to read this one at some point.

~Staci: I definitely could see how young boys would like this one. There's a lot of action and tension, and they'd learn about history at the same time.

~Shweta: War-related books are hard, but I've always been drawn to them based on my family's history.

~Blodeuedd: I agree that it's a heavy topic, but I think mature kids would be able to handle it. My daughter already has some knowledge of the events that transpired during the war, so if she wanted to read this one on her own, I'd let her.

~Laughing Stars: The publisher's blurb for the book says ages 8-12. My daughter is 9 and I'd let her read it, but I know what my daughter can handle. I agree that it's not an appropriate read for some kids.

~carolsnotebook: I'd love to hear what you and your daughter think if you do read it.

~Nymeth: I have to look for some of her other books. I found this one at a library sale and hadn't heard of her before.

Wanda said...

I have this one on my list for the WWII challenge. I'm hoping it is one I can pass on to my daughter who has already read a couple WWII books.

Having just put 'A World Away' my 5th selection for the challenge on hold at the library, I am nowhere near your totals!

Anna said...

~Wanda: I do hope you get to read it. And I just learned from the author that there was a sequel, Fire in the Hills, which I must get my hands on! I can't help myself when it comes to WWII books. I told myself it would be the year of WWII books for me, with or without the challenge. :)

Wanda said...

Anna, I am always forgetting to mark the follow-up comments box. :( Had I done so, I would have known about the sequel (duh!).

Anna said...

~Wanda: No worries! I do the same thing all the time.

Anna and Serena said...

We've linked to your review on the war blog.