Note: This is edited down from a 1,774-word book review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004–06.
This memoir by Maia Wojciechowska is the story of how she, her mother, and her two brothers spent the first half of WWII going from country to country, while her father was with the Army as a pilot and waiting for the safest moment to join them. Several scenes inspired things in my books, like their escape on the train on the first day of the invasion of Poland, and when they’re smuggled over a border in potato sacks in a truck.
On 1 September 1939, Maia hears and sees planes flying overhead, and thinks one of them may be her father. She’s happily running along with her new Doberman puppy and is heartbroken when her dog is suddenly felled by a bomb. This makes her very angry at the Nazis, a hatred which lasts the entire rest of the war.
Maia’s mother decides to leave for France (where her husband has already left for) with her three children—Zbyszek (Zbigniew), Maia, and obnoxious little Krzys (Kryzsztof). But the train, one of the last few allowed to leave Poland, is constantly being stopped because of the incessant bombs. Outside, large groups of people are fleeing on foot. Zbyszek and Maia laugh about how much the train will stink if it’s hit by a bomb, since the last thing a person does before dying is defecate.
Eventually, they have to get out and start walking too, since the tracks are destroyed by bombs. During one air raid, Maia gets in a lot of trouble because she stands right out in the open as a plane drops bullets and smaller bombs, and keeps flying right over her as she stands there calmly. After this, they board another train which also eventually gets stopped because of more bombed-out tracks, but when they reach Łódż on foot, they’re able to board a train that takes them to France, where they previously lived for a year.
They live in several places in France, both before and during the Nazi occupation. For awhile, the children play war with their new friends, also refugees from Poland, including twin boys. They have stockpiles of weapons, which they found abandoned by the French army, and pretend to die from being shot at, after they spend the more important parts of their meetings discussing how they’re going to exact revenge on Germany and France and how they’re going to save Poland. The twins like to pretend to die in one another’s arms.
When all the other Polish families are evacuated, Maia and Zbyszek sneak a machine gun and ammunition into their apartment to shoot the oncoming Germans and the traitorous French who are hugging them and giving them flowers, but their mother sees the gun and wrestles it away from them. Maia also gets into trouble at school, once when she beats a boy who tried to lift her dress and another time when she pretends to not understand French, till she gets the principal as her teacher, who knows from her mother that Maia knows and understands French quite well.
Maia barely goes to school at all, since she’s constantly playing hooky, staying home with colds, or being punished by being made to stand behind the blackboard or outside because she won’t talk. Several schools throw her out because she’s absent so much, and because she refuses to participate. Maia and Zbyszek swore an oath to never speak to a French person for the duration of the war, nor to speak French, and they’re keeping to it. Maia only breaks it when their mother is briefly arrested after they arrive in Vichy France, and she asks how long she’ll be in there.
During the time in France, they also live in the same hotel as a mysterious and somewhat creepy older woman, who tries to seduce the confused Zbyszek.
Maia has her share of unthinking moments too, like when they’re going to Spain and she’s entrusted with a hatbox containing a teddybear stuffed with money and jewels, totalling more than $4,000. The money and jewels are from fellow Poles in Lisbon, who want to send packages to their relatives back home. Everything is going according to plan, until she loses sight of her family at a train station and gets on the wrong train. It’s going to Madrid too, but won’t arrive at the same time, as Zbyszek tells her as he runs alongside the departing train. Maia begins talking to a man sitting next to her during the ride, and when she gets off and rejoins her family, her mother is angry and horrified that Maia somehow let him make off with the teddybear without her realising it. He opened the window so she could exit faster, and when she turned around to introduce this handsome stranger to them, he was gone.
Eventually, the family are leave France for Portugal. However, this is only temporary, and they soon fly to London. The father joins them at this point, and it’s hard getting used to him being back in their lives and to living in a strange new place, with new schools, new people, and a new language. Maia proudly tells anyone who tries to speak to her that she’s Polish and doesn’t wish to learn English. The moment she left France, Maia went back to speaking French. There’s no more reason to keep the pact outside of France, and she’s not speaking French to actual French citizens. However, she still doesn’t want to speak English, and settles on a Catholic boarding school where everything is taught in French.
On the ship to America, which takes off in November 1942 after a lengthy delay, Maia gets the idea to commit suicide romantically, since she’s in the midst of unrequited love, and decides she’ll die by the cold winds. She desperately loves a handsome young soldier, and the night before they’re to reach America, where her father has been assigned a post in Washington at the Polish Embassy, she goes on deck and ties herself to a post with her scarf. She would’ve taken her clothes off to be even more romantic, but she doesn’t like her body.
Zbyszek comes upon her standing on deck at dawn, having read her suicide note, and laughs at her plan. “Are you going to freeze your ass off?” Maia abandons the freezing to death suicide after he laughs at her and volunteers some information which deeply shocks her, and she goes back down to her private cabin. It’s coming up on five in the morning, when they’re due to dock, but she doesn’t want to be among all the other people coming up to see New York as they slowly come in for their landing. Just like everything else she’s done over the past three years, and her entire life before that, she wants to be different.
I really love Maia because she’s her own person and a tomboy, not a docile girly-girl who stays out of trouble. Like many tomboys through the ages, Maia wishes she were a boy, because of the freedom and increased opportunities available to boys. She doesn’t get along well with her mother either, which I also relate to.