My Friday Book: “The Assignment” or “Uppdraget” by Camilla Lagerqvist

Finally, I have been able to get a new keyboard for my iPad, so I can create again! My book today, ought to have been “The Thief ofimage Time” by John Boyne, the author of “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”. But while the latter was a daunting yet very good book, which refuses to leave you after finishing it, the previous is just one of the most boring books I have ever read. I force myself to read a couple of pages now and then but it is just not worth the struggle. When I saw this book being recommended to my family, Swedish “Uppdraget”, it was easier than easy to put Boyne’s book down to rest, in order to see if this other book, was a book for any of my children. I have now read it twice! Once myself and once aloud to “Kitty”, my 11-year-old son, who is not too keen on picking up a book. He was slightly bored at first since it is a rather slow book in the beginning. No action on page one, so to speak. That is why I read it aloud, while he ate dinner, so he was a trapped audience. Once things started to happen in the book, he did not want me to stop reading till the end. So a couple of hours later, sore throat and all, I had him convinced that history and these books are exciting! He was thrilled to find out that there are two more published in the series and want us to start on the second today. A little short version for all of you who do not know Swedish (in case they never translate it):

imageMaja is almost 13 years old and it is summer 1943. Her house in the province of Värmland, is the first one which one arrives to, after crossing the border from Norway. She is by now as used to hearing the German machine guns in the forest, as she is to hearing the neighbour’s cows.

Her father has been called up, which means that her mother is trying to run the family nursery by herself, as well as taking care of her three children Maja 13, Gullbritt 10 and Per-Erik. One hot summer night, sleepless Maja notices a pregnant Norwegian woman crossing the border, with a daughter in tow, the same age, as Maja. But they are not the only ones arriving in the community of Gullfors. Maja’s mother’s friend from school, has also arrived with her son. Maja is absolutely thrilled at the thought of new friends, since her best friend was forced to move far away, with her family. Everyone getting called up or having to leave, to find work.

The next day her mother has invited her old friend Greta and her son Benjamin for dinner. A feast on eggs, which she must have traded with the neighbour Persson, who is a farmer, or having used all their coupons, and sausage. Greta tells them how they had to escape from Oslo and first lived in Stockholm, till Greta’s uncle testamented his cottage in the village, to them. While the grown ups chat, Maja gets to show Benjamin the hothouse and the Norwegian mysterious girl arrives, to buy potatoes. She gets scared off  at once though, when German fighter planes fly straight over the house, trying to avoid the radar.

They find the girl hiding by a strangely shaped stone formation in the forest and the three sit down on the stone to get acquainted. Maja doesn’t know what to say to handsome Benjamin, so she asks what it was like to live in an occupied country. Benjamin is the only one who answers and says that his family were forced to close their music shop, but that it was alright, since all glass had been broken anyway. Why, asks Maja. “Because we are Jewish.” Not only did they stamp a J in our passports, says Benjamin, but everyone above 14 was taken to forced labour. His dad had already left by then though, and had joined the resistance.

The next day Maja and Gullbritt are forced to go deliver produce, from the hothouses. Their favourite house is the house of the deceased doctor. His old wife Christin Kvarnswärd lives there and keeps track of everything which happens in the village. As soon as they sit down to feast on cake, which is the ritual at Mrs. Kvarnswärd’s house, she starts interrogating Maja about her new friends, which Maja finds odd.

Another morning,  Benjamin comes by and invites her to go bathe in the lake by his cottage. On the way there, some bullies are being mean to the Norwegian girl, named Hilde. They are  calling her “German brat”, meaning that she is a traitor. Hilde runs off and Maja can’t stop her, to find out why the girls were bullying her. While swimming with Benjamin, he tells Maja of the resistance group his dad belongs to and that a woman has joined them. He does this with admiration and says she is called the Black Rose. She had smuggled out documents from the German headquarters, dressed up as a german soldier and had been able to escape to his dad’s group.

Suddenly Hilde joins them and shows that she has the fancy swimsuit Maja dreams of owning, having seen it in a magazine before. Hilde also has the breasts which Maja lacks and Maja sadly notices Benjamin’s admiring eyes and how Hilde steals all attention. Maja’s sore spot is that she has no female curves yet and being teased in school for it. When it is time to leave, Hilde takes Maja to the side and  tells her that the bullies called her a German brat, but that her dad was Norwegian. He is dead and her mother is engaged to a German soldier, which made life too dangerous for them in Norway. All children spitting at Hilde in school and people being mean to them in general. Her mother is expecting his child. They thought they would be safe in Maja’s village, after the German smuggled them across the border, but their Norwegian neighbour’s relatives, live in the village, and she fears for continued harassment. She has Maja swear that she will not tell anyone, the truth.

Another day, Maja’s mum tells her that the doctor’s wife, has invited Maja and her new friends for cake. Excitedly, the three children head to the cake feast, in the posh house. Mrs Kvarnswärd asks for their names, as they pile cakes on their plates and she is pleased to hear Hilde Langland’s name sounding so Norwegian. But the room grows cold and uncomfortable when Benjamin Rosenbaum introduces himself and Mrs. Kvarnswärd asks him if it is a Jewish name. He doesn’t eat anything more after this. And things get worse, when they are on their way home. His mother comes running, telling him that his paternal uncle, aunt and their children, six and four years old, have all been killed in a concentration camp.

The next morning, Benjamin informs the girls that he wants them to form a resistance group. Both girls are all up for it and come to  the first meeting that evening. But Benjamin is all fired up and thinks that they should start acting at once, by creeping through the forest and spy on the Germans, who have set up a guard post, right by Maja’s grandmother’s blueberry spot. A place her mother has forbidden her to go to, since the Germans took over Norway, the spot being on the Norwegian side of the border. While watching the Germans, they see an older Norwegian man trying to cross the border, him getting discovered and shot, basically right in front of the children’s eyes. Shocked, all three run as fast as they can back to Maja’s, the latter vomiting.

They go on though, having a second meeting, where Benjamin decides that they must make a bomb, which will destroy the weapons’ storage and prevent the Germans from shooting people trying to cross the border. He needs Chlorine, which Maja can provide from her parents’ nursery. But when she arrives to Benjamin’s with it, she finds him hugging Hilde in his tool shed and in a rage of jealousy, the soon to be teenager, screams at Hilde, asking her if she has told Benjamin about her mother carrying a German soldier’s child, intending to marry him. Hilde runs off in disbelief and shock over having been betrayed and Maja hands the Chlorine to Benjamin, and heads home in tears, having betrayed her new friend like this. But she had just had enough, not having any female shapes yet and Benjamin clearly admiring Hilde’s looks and breasts, particularly every time they go swimming.

All the same, Maja avoids her friends. But when chocolate arrives from her father, she realises that she must give it to Hilde and say that she is sorry. It is not Hilde’s fault Benjamin is in love with her. Nor does she tell Benjamin why she did what she did, when he and his mum come to visit. Things sort themselves out four days later, when Hilde joins the two by Benjamin’s little lake. Kurt Behm, her step-father-to-be, crossed the border the night before and had a conversation with her mum, which she listened in on. He told her mum that the Germans had been informed that they had an impostor in the German consulate, a woman, who in reality was a resistance fighter. The informer called her the Black Rose and she would be arrested the next day and executed in public, to teach the resistance a lesson.  Benjamin decides that they have to cross the border that night and warn her. His bomb can distract the Germans.

Maja has a better idea. They need to get to a village near the border, where Benjamin’s father’s resistance group is in hiding. Maja suggests they go there via another village, a village where she has been many times with her grandmother. Her grandmother’s sister Ella lives in the forest with her husband Björn, and they can get to their farm on little cow paths, which the Norwegians and Swedes have used for centuries, to cross the border on, instead of on the official longer route. Hilde and Benjamin think it an excellent plan. Ella’s house can become a hiding place if needs be and from there they can go and ask the Frode-group to contact the Black Rose.

The children set out at 23:00, but do not get very far, before they discover that they are not alone, out in the forest that night. A black car, which Maja has seen before outside Mrs. Kvarnswärd’s house, quickly approaches them on the road they are on before needing to enter the forest, and the children can not hide before the driver and the passengers have seen them. In the moonlight, they see that Mrs. Kvarnswärd is one of them. The children start out on the path but Hilde soon needs to pee. She parts from the group for a minute, and that is when they hear voices in the forest, men talking about having to find the children and stop them. Mrs. Kvarnswärd’s orders. The children start running as soon as Hilde gets back to them, with the men in pursuit. The children arrive to Ella’s just minutes before the three men, and is let in by a surprised Ella, who has not seen her sister’s grandchild for four years. She soon understands the situation and has Ben and Maja hide in the wood bin and Hilde, in another safe spot. They barely manage to hide before there is a knock on the door. The men outside want to search the house for children and Ella, having skin on her nose, answers that they are insane for even suggesting a woman of her age, to have any children. She and Björn manage to get the men to leave.

While the children get something to eat, Björn draws a map to the place where he has heard there are resistance fighters in hiding and he gives them two bicycles. They bicycle as fast as they can, but do not arrive in the village Rimsdal until 04:00. They find the house which seems abandoned but after knocking for a long time, someone finally opens the door. When Benjamin introduces himself as Harald Rosenbaum’s son, they are finally let in and find the small cottage full of resistance men. It takes a while to convince them that they have come to save the Black Rose’s life and Hilde has to admit to that her mum is together with a German, but that she herself hates the Germans. The red-bearded leader, finally gets a radio out and sends the vital message to Oslo and the Black Rose. Benjamin does not get to see his father, who is on assignment, but that is the least of his worries. Now they have to get back to Sweden, and a guide named Hans is sent with them. But they barely manage to get out of the village, before a strange-looking vehicle with two German soldiers arrive, to arrest them.

If you are  one of my Swedish readers, you might want to stop here and buy or borrow the book at the library! But if you can’t wait for the conclusion, please continue:

Hans does his best to distract the soldiers. He screams to the children to run as fast as they can, while he is being beaten. Benjamin gets a homemade bomb out of his rucksack, which he throws on the road to create chaos, which it does for a while, giving them time to run across a smoke-filled field. But soon the air has cleared and the soldiers start shooting at the children. Maja takes a hit in the thigh and runs the risk of bleeding to death. Together Benjamin and Hilde drag her between them while running. The soldiers do not pursue them, since one of the soldiers had qualms about shooting at children. Somehow Maja is conscious enough at times, to guide them in the right direction and eventually they run in to her farmer neighbour Persson and her mum, who are out looking for them. The children have by then concocted up a story, that they must stick to. They were playing too close to the border, not knowing how close they were, and the border guards shot at them.

Hilde shows up some days later with Ben, to tell the group about weird things going on at Mrs. Kvarnswärd’s. Hilde’s mum is now cleaning for the rich woman and there are strange meetings in the evenings, when Hilde’s mum is told to leave early. One evening when she had to go back for her forgotten handbag, she heard shocking things which were bad for Sweden. But that is all Hilde knows. Days go by, and Maja’s dad gets home for a couple of days of compassionate leave. When he has left, a white-faced Hilde shows up and asks Maja if she can manage a walk to Mrs. Kvarnswärd’s. The latter has demanded that Hilde come and when Maja asks why, Hilde answers that Mrs. Kvarnswärd suspects that Hilde has stolen something from her.

Hilde explains all to Maja on the way there. She had listened in to a conversation her mum had with her lover, across the border. Hilde’s mum is supposed to clean the old lady’s house except for one room. The study. But when Mrs. Kvarnswärd was away one day, Hilde’s mum saw the door to the study open and all the dust on the floors, so she felt that a sweep in there would do no harm. While sweeping the floor, she noticed a drawer in the desk open and saw a box in there with the text “The Death Registry” written on it. Her lover told her to do nothing about it, over the phone. But Hilde accompanied her mum the next time, to the house, and snuck in to the study and stole the box, in order for Sweden not to get in to trouble. But when she left the room with her big rucksack, she was observed by the housekeeper Birgit.

The girls arrive at the house and notice the black car, from the night of their big adventure. They enter the house which seems empty, but soon Mrs. Kvarnswärd walks in accompanied by one of the men from that night, who turns out to be German. His name is Klaus. Mrs. Kvarnswärd does not believe Hilde’s lie about having gone in to the study, to try the typewriter and demands her box back. She also tells them to avoid that boy Benjamin “since he is of an inferior race and we don’t want that kind here.” The girls are shocked. Maja realises that Mrs. Kvarnswärd, who she always thought was such a nice old lady and grandmother-like, might indeed be a nazi spy. She is not nice at all but the calculating, cold woman her dad has always said that she is. Hilde is sent for the box, while Maja is held as a hostage. Hilde signals to Maja, as she is leaving, that she will go to Benjamin.

While they wait for the box, Mrs. Kvarnswärd and Klaus drinks and converse in German, but Klaus does take the time to laugh at Maja, being in pain from the gunshot wound. Maja is appalled by the entire thing. Then a lorry arrives and men jump out from it. Mrs. Kvarnswärd and Klaus go out to argue with the people and that is when Hilde sneaks in and tells Maja to come, that they must get out the back way while the resistance fighters from Norway, keep the others sidetracked. Greta has her own contacts and she was the one who got them there so quickly. Maja and Hilde head for Greta’s cottage, where they find not only Greta and Benjamin, but also Maja’s mum. Greta has been able to get the box open and she walks out with it so they can look at what is inside. The box is full of cards and each card holds a name and all the information about that person, as well as  recommendations for the Germans to have the person killed. It is indeed a death registry which was supposed to have been handed to the Germans, had they invaded Sweden, so that they could easily find undesirables and eliminate them in the German camps. Most of the names in the box belonging to Jews. Poor Benjamin finds his own card in the box and realises that Mrs. Kvarnswärd wanted him dead too. They close the box and Greta later hands the box to the Norwegian resistance fighters.

The next morning Gullbritt informs Maja that Mrs. Kvarnswärd has moved to Stockholm, to live there with her son. All her things are to be shipped there and the house sold. When school starts that autumn, Maja is delighted to have handsome Benjamin sit in front of her and Hilde close by. Their old teacher is off for six months, and they will have a substitute for that time. In walks a rather ordinary woman, semi-blonde hair, nothing raving about her, but she does wear fashionable clothes. Her name is Elin and after school she wants to talk to Benjamin, Maja and Hilde. They wonder what is up and is more than surprised when she thanks them for saving her life. She explains that she is part of the Swedish resistance and was working undercover in Norway, when she nearly was arrested. Her code name being … The Black Rose. Maja is flabbergasted. She had dreamt of the Black Rose so many times, imagining her as a raven haired woman with red lipstick, pirate looking and clearly a heroine. Not this rather bland woman who noone takes notice of!

That is where the book officially ends but the author has added how she got the idea for the book. She had read a news article about a very respected headmaster having passed away. In his belongings, his children made the awful discovery of a death registry like the one found by the children in the book. And he was not the only one who made up lists of people who ought to be killed by the Germans, had they arrived. Lots of people did, as well as nazi parties around Sweden. She also adds that even though Sweden was not at war, people could read in newspapers and hear on the radio, about the atrocities taking place in Europe and the camps. And finally that 771 Jews from Norway, was sent to camps and that only 34 of them survived.

What did the historian in me think about the book? It was exciting, if one is willing to overlook some historical mistakes and religious ones. Reading the book, it bothered me that the author put a lot of focus on the food they ate. My parents grew up during the war and all I ever heard of, was of the shortages. How everything was rationed. They had no butter, no eggs and especially no candy and cakes. Yet, both Maja’s mum, Benjamin’s mum and Mrs. Kvarnswärd are able to put plenty on the table. She does talk of dandelion coffee etc. but she should not really have given an impression that for the most part people could eat themselves full, because that was not the case. Nor were there sweets and sugar galore. Secondly, a Jew would NEVER EVER eat the kind of sausage mentioned, since it is made out of pig. Greta sighs and says it has been years since she had sausage. I don’t wonder about that! Being married to a Jew, he would not have allowed it in his house and would have taught his son not to eat it either. A Jew can be a non-believer but he will not eat PIG!

If one wants to be nit-picky, she also has put some politically correct things in the book, which was hardly politically correct or even something one objected to in those days. Boys were boys and girls were girls, non of the feminist crap entered people’s heads, so it is not really nice when the author tries to make today’s children think that they were just like us back then. Boys had clear roles and so did girls. Why not just teach children about that instead, so that they can see the progress which has been made? It is not like children would regress by hearing that!

I do think it important to look at our history though. Especially in these days when the nazi party of Sweden, cloaked in suits and calling themselves “Sverigedemokraterna”, like the  nazis ever stood for anything democratic, has become the biggest party in Sweden with 27% of the votes in the latest polls. Where are we heading? Is it not time to learn from history? What did Sweden really do during th war? Do we really have anything to be proud of? Were we really better than our collaborating neighbours? Or is it time to accept that we are no more innocent than the rest of the world. That anti-Semitism was as accepted in Sweden as in Norway. That Sweden closed its borders just like all the other countries, to fleeing Jews. That many people thought that Hitler was a great man who had straightened out his country and that especially the upper classes and the Royal House, was indeed totally pro-Germany.

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