In 1938, Sweden offered to take in 500 Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Twelve-year-old Stephie and seven-year-old Nellie Steiner were among those children. Forced to be separated from their parents, Stephie and Nellie were sent to Sweden in hopes that they would be protected from the Nazi invasion. But from the beginning, things don’t go as planned. First the girls are separated from each other; Nellie goes to live with warm, loving Auntie Alma while Stephie is sent to stuffy, grumpy Aunt Marta.
Nellie seems to assimilate nicely into her new home, makes friends easily and begins to act just like any Swedish child. For Stephie, the transition is much more difficult. She is constantly hounded by the school bully, Sylvia, doesn’t know how to ride a bicycle like all of the other kids her age, and struggles to feel liked by her foster mother. Stephie’s unhappiness begins to strain the relationship between her and Nellie and too often she finds herself lashing out at her sister. On top of all of this, Stephie finds out that is unlikely her parents will be able to join them anytime soon. The situation in Vienna is getting worse and it is nearly impossible to leave the country. Stephie must put on a brave face in her letters to her parents, while inside she feels as though her whole world is crumbling.
But as the months go by, things start to turn around. Stephie makes a few friends. Her exceptional hard work at school is recognized by her teacher. She learns things about Aunt Marta that helps their relationship move forward. And though fear, confusion, and worry for her parents are still a part of her life, Stephie begins to appreciate her life on the faraway island that seems like it’s at the end of the world. For that, she can be grateful.
Though a little bland at times, A Faraway Island is a thoughtful depiction of displaced children during World War II. This is probably the type of book I would have enjoyed when I was younger, but doesn’t necessarily have the depth of emotion I appreciate as an adult. I would recommend this book to middle graders who like historical fiction.