Vanessa Curtis has written a number of well-received books for young people, among them the Zelah Green books, and The Baking Life of Amelie Day. These are contemporary stories with strong teen central characters. Her new book is published today, Holocaust Memorial Day, and unlike her earlier books is set in the past, and based on true life events. The Earth is Singing tells the harrowing story of what happened to the Jews of Riga in Latvia during the Nazi occupation. Andrea Reece interviewed Vanessa Curtis about her book for Books for Keeps.
Until two years ago, Vanessa Curtis believed that all her relatives were Londoners. Then her mother told her that her great-grandmother had been born in Riga in Latvia, leaving her homeland to settle in London in the early 1900s. ‘This revelation completely changed the way I thought of myself’, Vanessa says, and it set her off to discover more about the family she never knew she’d lost. Finding out about them was difficult: the Russians, who reoccupied Latvia after the war, burned most of the written records of the time and there wasn’t a lot to go on. So she started reading about Riga, and became interested enough to visit the city, to try to get to know the place. It was there while on a visit to the Riga Ghetto Museum that she first thought about writing a book about what happened to the city’s Jews.
‘In the Museum there are lots of photos of the people who died there. These are lovely photos of happy students and children, taken pre-war, young people with their whole lives before them. With their eyes looking out at me, I could almost hear them saying “Could you tell our story?” That feeling carried on until I got home.
What happened to those people is truly harrowing and Vanessa says she was struck while writing the book with the importance of telling their story to children. ‘I suddenly realised while working on the book that it would be something to take into schools. Children are quite rightly taught about Auschwitz, Treblinka, the Warsaw Ghetto but nobody seems to talk about what happened in Eastern European places like Riga. This story needs to be told too.’
Vanessa chose to tell the story as a first person narrative, almost diary form – she admits that like all school children she was fascinated by the diary of Anne Frank and tried to make her book similar. ‘I’ve got a very direct unflowery style and always like writing in the first person: you can get straight to the point, and talk straight from the heart.’ Hanna, her central character, is very engaging, a normal lively teenager. She lives with her mother and Omama (grandma), worries about her father who has been taken away by the Soviets, and dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer, and of marrying her handsome boyfriend Uldis. The family have already been forced out of their comfortable villa by the Soviets and into a small apartment. As the story progresses, we watch with Hanna first the arrival of the Nazis, then see neighbours taken away to be shot, and perhaps most upsetting for young girls, witness how her former friends turn their backs on her. In no time at all it seems, she has gone from being one of them, to ‘a dirty Jew’. Realising the danger they are in, her mother persuades Hanna’s uncle to hide them in the attic of his house. It’s hot, cramped and uncomfortable – agony for Hanna who can’t even stretch her legs properly let alone do any dance practice. The sense of security is short-lived: the family are betrayed by someone Hanna thought she could trust above everyone else and in a shocking scene, her uncle and his wife are murdered in front of them. The story gets bleaker yet, as the three women are sent into the ghetto, starved, frozen and forced into labour. Vanessa puts Hanna and her mother in the Rumbula forest too, the site of Latvia’s biggest mass murder, in a scene that gives the book its title. 46,500 people were reported to have been killed there, there are only three known survivors. It was, says Vanessa, really harrowing to research.
Yet despite the awful scenes described, the book has warmth, humour and hope. Hanna’s Omama is an indomitable old lady – ‘I’ve exaggerated the essence of Jewish Grandmother!’ Vanessa says laughing – who continues to laugh and make jokes through their suffering. Omama’s determined observance of Jewish Festivals, which might have seemed an irritation during ordinary life, give the family strength. Hiding in the loft over New Year, their uncle smuggles in challah and they eat it, dipping the sweet pieces into sticky honey. The more the Nazis try to destroy them in fact, the more important their identity as Jews becomes to them. Vanessa’s family are not particularly religious she says, and she has no religious faith, but her research, the experience of writing the book she says, ‘has made me feel the blood more’.
Above all, this is a story of determination and courage, and the book ends on a note of hope, important for young people says Vanessa. What does she hope they will take from the book? ‘I suppose in some ways I would like them to be shocked, not in a horrible way, but I’d like them to put themselves in Hanna’s situation, imagine not having a house, not having food, not being allowed to do what you want to do, having to live by rules set by other people. Young people need to be aware of this, because it is happening now all around the world. Though I invented Hanna, this is a true story. It happened, and it could happen again.’
Readers of all ages will be moved by The Earth is Singing. It describes the horror clearly, but makes the reader feel it through the eyes of real people, people not that different to us. Since I spoke to Vanessa, the terrible events in France have happened, and intolerance and anti-Semitism is on the rise across Europe. The story told in The Earth is Singing seems even more important.
The Earth is Singing is published by Usborne, 978-1409577447, £6.99 pbk.
Zelah Green, Egmont, 978-1405255059, £5.99pbk
Zelah Green One More Little Problem, Egmont, 978-1405240543, £5.99pbk
The Baking Life of Amelie Day, Curious Fox, 978-1782021667, £6.99pbk