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From a secret perch in a cleared-out Polish ghetto, a boy of eleven waits for his father to return: an Israeli prize-winner, of muted, Crusoe heroism, by the author of an autobiographical adult novel of a Holocaust-childhood, The Lead Soldiers (1980). Alex's mother had disappeared on a visit to Zionist friends. His father has taught him how to use his pistol. (He recalls them arguing roots vs. assimilation, trust vs. trusting yourself.) From old Boruch, in the rope factory where his father worked, he has learned to tie knots. Then, in the clearance of Jews, Boruch helps him escape, with the pistol--telling him to wait for his father, ""even if it takes a whole month. . . a whole year,"" in the ruined house at 78 Bird Street. Those first days, fugitive Jews rob each other, and Polish looters proliferate. But one looter, taking him from another (blonde Alex thinks) and concerned at his youthfulness, proffers his address and his name, Bolek. Alex's salvation, though, will be his wits and his guts. To reach the broken-off floor above, Alex builds a rope ladder, devising a way to conceal it when he goes out. In the capacious larder--with his pet mouse (perilously retrieved), with scrounged food, books, and bedding--he has ""the wonderful feeling of having struck it rich."" Through air vents, he watches life on the Polish side of the ghetto wall--the daily comings-and-goings, the pretty girl studying opposite, the kindly doctor with secret visitors. Then an uprising, during the clearance of the last ghetto-sector, breaches his isolation. Two rebels burst in, followed by a German soldier--whom Alex coolly shoots. (Later, he'll break down and cry.) One of the Jews, who knows Bolek as the Polish underground liaison, escapes through the wall. To save the other, Alex dresses himself as a Polish schoolboy and goes through the wall, along the now-familiar street, to fetch the doctor. On a second sortie, to see Bolek, he boldly plays soccer in the park and meets and makes a date with the girl, Stashya. It will turn out that she is Jewish too, they will exchange messages and pledges--a bit of a muchness tempered by Alex's plain-spoken telling. The ghetto wall comes down, Poles move into the street. Alex, doggedly remaining, can still signal to Bolek. And then, undramatically and astonishingly, his father reappears: ""I had stopped believing it long ago. . . I simply hadn't admitted it to myself."" As islander and scout, Alex has our admiration; as narrator, our steady interest. It is not hard to see what Orlev is up to, perhaps--even Alex is given to think he may be the only boy his age in the world with a gun. But, on its own terms: acute and restrained.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0395616239
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin