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After the War

by Carol Matas

Weary and broken, 15-year-old Ruth Mendenberg struggles back to her family home in Poland. Though she’s somehow survived Buchenwald concentration camp, Ruth fears that most of her family was slaughtered at Auschwitz. Still, she dares hope. A contemptuous former maid greets her at the door: “I thought you were all dead. Didn’t the gas ovens finish you all off?” And the door slams shut.

Winnipeg author Carol Matas is an accomplished writer of fictional history. After the War is exhaustively researched and cleanly written. She packs a powerful wallop of post-war and family history without ever taking her eyes off the story.

Like her biblical namesake, Ruth embarks on a life-transforming journey. A young sabra (a native Israeli) convinces her to help lead 20 Jewish orphans on an illegal and dangerous quest through half of Europe to their new homeland, Israel. Miraculously, surviving the carnage and persecution of post-war Poland, the children steal away in the night, on trucks, in trains, and often on foot, across hostile borders. They are encouraged to tell their shredded histories to Ruth who, at first, cannot bear to hear them. But Matas doesn’t flinch. We hear the screams of children being torn from their mothers, and smell the decay of the mass graveyards. Yet, each atrocity is juxtaposed against acts of heart-stopping courage and compassion. Evil walks this earth, but Matas’s young heroes are not powerless against it.

For much of the journey, Ruth is, quite understandably, functionally comatose. Since Matas tells her story in first person present, this leaves Ruth somewhat removed from us and muffles her eventual reawakening. On the plus side, this dry recounting style may be helpful to young readers trying to digest Ruth’s personal terror and the tension of the quest itself. Certainly, as with most great adventure stories, readers might wish it were longer.

As it is, After the War is a compelling and important story, fashioned from horror and redeemed by hope. Ruth Mendenberg’s journey will travel with thousands of young readers, and may very well pack up a trunk full of awards along the way.


Reviewer: Teresa Toten

Publisher: Scholastic


Price: $16.99

Page Count: 144 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-590-24758-1

Released: Aug.

Issue Date: 1996-10


Age Range: ages 12+