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Greater than Angels

by Carol Matas

It is the early 1940s, in Vichy France, and a number of Jewish teenagers, having lost nearly everything of their former lives and beliefs, are sitting on the porch of a Red Cross shelter and debating the existence of goodness in the world. One of the characters recalls what his father used to say on the subject: that if people keep the spirit of God dominant within them, then they are greater than the angels. Here, midway through the story, is the explanation of the title and an encapsulation of the themes that Carol Matas pursues in this intelligently written and emotionally powerful novel. As in many of Matas’s previous books, there is a general call to action, a conviction that moral choices are always available, even to the victims of the worst human depravity.

The novel’s heroine and narrator, 15-year-old Anna, knows that one must participate as fully as possible in one’s own fate. A natural performer, Anna tells jokes and arranges musical shows for her fellow prisoners in the detention camps. She also lends strength to her friends as they traverse the countryside, hiding from the gendarmes and the Gestapo, and finally making the perilous journey to the Swiss border. It is not that the moments of shared humanity are completely ameliorative, for the profound sadness and horror of the Holocaust events described in the narrative will stand. But these humane moments testify to the transcendent possibilities of the human spirit and the value of small-scale triumphs, bearing out the message of the novel’s epigraph from Sanhedrin: “One who saves a single life within humanity is as if they had saved all humanity.”

Like Matas’s previous adventure novels about the experiences of European Jews during the 1930s and ’40s, Greater Than Angels combines carefully researched historical scenes with high suspense. The most difficult aspects of this novel – the disturbingly realistic detail and unanswerable philosophical questions – are, to me, its most inspiring qualities.


Reviewer: Bridget Donald

Publisher: Scholastic


Price: $17.99

Page Count: 133 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-590-12489-6

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1998-8

Categories: Children and YA Fiction

Age Range: ages 12+