The Lily Pond is a middle grade story, book two of an award-winning quartet by Annika Thor, about two young Jewish sisters who leave their parents in Vienna to become refugees in Sweden. It’s a very sweet account of a thirteen-year-old’s struggle to hold on to her academic dreams, navigate a first love, adjust to a new city and a new school, deal with growing prejudice in her safe haven and believe that her parents will survive their ordeal in Nazi-occupied Austria.
Stephie Steiner looks forward to school on the mainland after graduating from the lower school on the fishing island where she and her sister live with two different foster families. She’s a scholarship student, living with a wealthy family who sometimes use her as a maid. And she’s in love with the family’s son, who takes her to concerts, walks the family dog with her, eats his meals with her in the kitchen and never suspects that the girl he thinks of as a little sister imagines he will wait for her to grow up. Thor is wonderfully descriptive about life on the rough island where Stephie’s foster family lives and the relative sophistication of life in the city.
The book imparts a strong sense of the conditions of the time, even though the translation from the Swedish uses simple declarative sentences that tell the story as much as show it. You really don’t mind the style as events speed up and Stephie creates some complications she can’t control and encounters some grown-ups who are dangerously flawed human beings. What happens feels absolutely true and what shadows Stephie’s adventures is absolutely true and makes this an inevitably sad book. Letters from her parents reveal the increasingly dire conditions in Vienna and a basic knowledge of history points to a looming tragedy.
This is a story to share with a thoughtful young reader and my recommendation is to be available for plenty of conversation. It’s a poignant account, not because Stephanie Steiner’s innocent heart is at serious risk and not because anti-Semitism puts her efforts in school at risk. It is a difficult story because Stephie’s parents are trapped in Vienna and might end up in Dachau, Mauthausen or Auschwitz. The grim reality of what ultimately befell Jews who could not get out of Vienna is not specifically referred to in this book, though, so The Lily Pond does provide a glimpse of history through the moving story of a young teen for whom there is still hope.
The Lily Pond Annika Thor | Delacorte Press 2011