Review: Beyond Belief
Dee White's narrative is a compelling mix of poignancy and poise. From the very first line, we are condemned to the cellar with Ruben and his exiled family, huddled in the dark under a mantel of uncertainty and fear. His confusion and anxiety are palpable but we are helpless for it is 1942 and for Jews like young Ruben, there is no longer any safe place in Paris as long as the Nazi stronghold remains. Except one...
In desperation, Ruben's parents escort him to the Grand Mosque where dozens of other Jewish children take refuge. Ruben's parents hope he will be safe here while they search for his adult sister in Spain, for salvation. After his mother's rushed and tearful farewell, Ruben realises the only familiar thing that links him to his true identity is the tattered yellow Star of David he keeps hidden in his shoe. It's enough to condemn him yet he refuses to part with it. He is an alien in a strange but beautiful new world, one he must now call home to survive.
The inhabitants of the Mosque are kind and wise, patient and accommodating. They teach Ruben, now addressed as Abdul, to live and think as a Muslim so that he may pass for one of them and thus avoid persecution from the Nazis or worse. Their hospitable administrations are genuine and generous and although Ruben recognises the great danger harbouring children like him places upon his Muslim family, he is restless to begin the journey his father mapped out for him to Spain. He believes if he can make it there, he will find his family. All he has to do is find the Fox, who was supposed to come for him but never does.
Sick of waiting in a state of permanent dread, Ruben attempts to leave on his own, bolstered by his 11-year-old naivete, impatience and dire need to reunite with his loved ones. His hunger to be gone ends in failure until one day the Mosque is raided and by shear luck, Ruben escapes to the hidden tunnels with two of his mosque family friends, Hana and Momo. What follows is a gut twisting scramble for freedom, through the sewers of Paris to the southern countryside of France where safety hovers always one step ahead of them.
White has crafted Ruben's quest for freedom with care and insight. Rather than taking centre stage historic and cultural facts are infused into the hearts of her characters so that their pain and suffering, their simple joys and expectations are felt vicariously through every page turn. It crushes belief that children as young as Ruben and younger had to endure such rigors and the indescribable horrors of World War II, without ever really knowing why they were the Nazis' unremitting prey. That White has managed to filter the worst of humanity into the same flask with paragons of human benevolence and create a perfect middle grade story of hope and resilience is truly beyond belief.
So engrossed was I by this astonishing expose of history, that I found myself looking for more. Not from the story, that ends like a warm beautiful embrace, rather I expected an author's note of explanation; more about the unique inspiration behind this story of the Muslims who saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children during the Second World War. But this small omission is easily overlooked and of course extends a platform for discussion for primary school aged children.
Beyond Belief is a novel that surprises and rocks. There is also a strange spiritual kind of calm that settles over you as you read it, at least there was for me, as religions meet and melt into one common notion; to spread peace and show kindness toward all mankind. And for that, despite the weighty merit of this subject matter, Beyond Belief is a novel middle grade readers will find equally compelling.
Title: Beyond Belief
Author: Dee White
Publisher: Omnibus Books, $17.99
Publication Date: April 2020
For ages: 10 – 14
Type: Middle Grade Novel
Buy the Book: Boomerang Books, Booktopia