Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Precious possessions

I read the deeply moving story of Hana's Suitcase way back in 2003 when it was first published, so I didn't expect to be gobsmacked by it again. The author, Karen Levine, first told the story in a radio program (or programme as the Canadians say), and then wrote the book. I had a librarian's memorable moment putting this into the hands of a young girl Hana's age a couple of years ago. Her mother came up to me a half hour later and pronounced it the perfect choice! (Those are so much better to remember than the screw-ups, aren't they? I had one of those today.)

Hana's Suitcase is the story of Fumiko Ishioka, a young woman who runs a small Holocaust research center in Japan. In 2000, the center acquired the suitcase -- a memento (which is not the right word) of Auschwitz. Fumiko, urged on by students who participated in the center's programming, was determined to find out its history. All she knew was the owner's name, written on the cover. The book teases out Hana Brady's story, alternating with the steps of Fumiko's research. Levine's writing is so tender and gentle that I wouldn't hesitate to give this to any elementary school student as an explanation of the Holocaust. It spares the horror, without sparing the loss of that one little girl.

It's also a great book about research, about how to go about answering a question that you might have. Fumiko's dogged detective work (she didn't let a national holiday stop her!) eventually led her to Hana's older brother George, who had survived Auschwitz and emigrated to Canada. His stories of their growing up in Czechoslovakia and their internment in the workcamp at Theresienstadt form the bulk of the book. And the photographs he had of his family -- preserved during the Holocaust by Gentile members of his family -- provided the answer to the most persistent question the Japanese students had: What did Hana look like? She was lovely, wasn't she?

The audiobook was read by Stephanie Wolfe. She read this straight and simply for younger listeners, providing accents for all the story's participants. I personally didn't care for this, but she did it well. When the excerpt from the radio program came on, I could tell that Wolfe had done her research as her interpretation of Fumiko was startingly close to the woman's speaking voice.

Yes, the best thing about this audiobook is the part that isn't from the book. Excerpts of Fumiko and George relating the story of the suitcase and how its puzzle was revealed conclude the audiobook. It is powerful listening. Even though they are essentially repeating what you learned in the book, hearing their voices is riveting.

It looks like you can hear the program in its entirety at the CBC website. Go. Listen. Now.

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