Hunger journeys were often made by the starving residents of Amsterdam into the countryside to search for food in the closing months of the Second World War. The hunger journey in Vancouver author Maggie de Vries’ first YA novel is only the beginning of the tale, however.
Lena is a naive, awkward teenager struggling to understand the complexities of living in German-occupied Holland. She copes by convincing herself that she doesn’t care, that what happens around her is not her concern (though she does feel some guilt about not helping a Jewish friend who has been taken away). Lena is thrilled when Sofie, a charming, flighty, irresponsible girl, befriends her. Sofie persuades Lena to go on a hunger journey, but things quickly go wrong. The girls have to rely on two young German soldiers, one of whom, Albert, takes a fancy to Lena.
Hunger Journeys is replete with convincing details and complex characters and relationships. Lena’s father is Dutch, yet he is unpleasant and anti-Semitic. Albert is the nicest person Lena has ever met, but is he a monster who has herded Jews into cattle trucks or a good man “who just happens to be on the wrong side”?
De Vries has done a masterful job of creating a believable world peopled with characters whose loyalties are agonizingly divided between family, friends, and nation. Lena is constantly presented with dilemmas that are never black and white and solutions that are rarely perfect. Through these struggles, she grows up and comes to understand the value of friendship – even when that friendship is dangerous and the friends flawed.