Book: Postcards from No Man's Land

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Postcards from No Man's Land

Author: Aidan Chambers
Publisher: Dutton Books

By turns playful and wrenching, thrilling and meditative, this extraordinary novel, told in dual narratives, takes the reader on a memorable voyage of discovery-the discovery of family secrets, of sex, of art, and of oneself in a foreign city or in the midst of war.

Seventeen-year-old backpacker Jacob Todd has come to Amsterdam to honor his grandfather, a soldier who died in a nearby town in World War II. He isn’t ready for the seductive assault the city launches on his senses. A stranger flirts with him in a café leaving him with this prophetic scribbled message: Nothing in Amsterdam is what it appears to be. In 1944, teenage Geertrui, living in occupied Holland, meets another Jacob Todd, an English soldier who must hide with her family after his battalion pulls out. In the midst of terrible danger, the two become lovers, linking their families in a way that resonates in the present.


Two craftily interwoven stories, separated by 50 years in time, make upthis emotionally and intellectually challenging novel. Set in Holland, one story tells of the passionate love between a young Dutch woman and Jacob Todd, a wounded English soldier: “I filled the glass and gave it to the soldier who had not yet spoken, who now said, ‘Thanks, miss, you’re an angel of mercy.’ He had eyes that made me melt.”

The other story finds the English soldier’s grandson visiting Amsterdam for the commemoration of The Battle of Arnhem. Before he knows it, he’s way out of his emotional depth: “His arrival yesterday had been embarrassing. His visit to the Anne Frank house had been upsetting. His confusion of boy for girl unnerved him. The mugging had left him duff.” The learning curve is steep and readers can’t help becoming thoroughly engrossed in the powerful emotions as well as being confronted with questions which simply don’t have easy answers. This is a riveting, thought-provoking and thoroughly worthwhile read. (12 years and over).—Tamsin Palmer

Barnes and Noble

Winner of both the prestigious Michael L. Printz Award and Britain’s Carnegie Medal, Aidan Chambers’s sophisticated and rewarding Postcards from No Man’s Land weaves together past and present, connecting the experiences of two Jacob Todds—a deceased war hero and his teenage grandson—across time and place.

Seventeen-year-old Jacob Todd goes to Amsterdam to honor the memory of his grandfather, a soldier who died in the WWII Battle of Arnhem. Shortly after arriving in the city, Jacob is robbed by a transvestite and forced to stay with the outspoken grandson of Geertrui, the woman who cared for Jacob’s grandfather during the war. During his stay, Jacob comes to learn more about Amsterdam, his own sexuality, the history of WWII in the Netherlands, and the remarkable Geertrui, whose wartime experiences unfold in a compelling parallel story line.

As she lies dying of cancer, Geertrui discusses her life as a young woman during the Nazi occupation, including the tale of how she tended to—and fell in love with—Jacob’s grandfather. But as the old woman prepares for her assisted suicide, she confesses a deep secret that brings their worlds closer than young Jacob ever could have imagined.

Chambers’s novel is multilayered and thought-provoking, covering many difficult topics in its sophisticated, often surprising plot. The book is filled with contrasts and connections between Jacob’s experiences in contemporary Amsterdam and the wartime history of Holland, and the author even uses the Dutch language and Amsterdam itself to link Jacob to the past and to his own self-discovery. A remarkable read for teens and young adults, this is one award winner that lives up to its hype. Matt Warner

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