The Lily Pond

A year after Stephie Steiner and her younger sister, Nellie, left Nazi-occupied Vienna, Stephie has finally adapted to life on the rugged Swedish island where she now lives. But more change awaits Stephie: her foster parents have allowed her to enroll in school on the mainland, in Goteberg. Stephie is eager to go. Not only will she be pursuing her studies, she’ll be living in a cultured city again—under the same roof as Sven, the son of the lodgers who rented her foster parents’ cottage for the summer. Five years her senior, Sven dazzles Stephie with his charm, his talk of equality, and his anti-Hitler sentiments. Stephie can’t help herself—she’s falling in love. As she navigates a sea of new emotions, she also grapples with what it means to be beholden to others, with her constant worry about what her parents are enduring back in Vienna, and with the menacing spread of Nazi ideology, even in Sweden. In these troubled times, her true friends, Stephie discovers, are the ones she least expected.

One thought on “The Lily Pond

  1. Pritchard & Wilson says:

    Gail’s Take:
    When I first saw the title of this week’s novel, The Lily Pond, my first thought was about the farm we lived on during my elementary school years. It was a small farm with two ponds, the sundry animals—a few cows, horses, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, rabbits. I thought of the smaller of the two ponds and how it was choked with lily pads—to the point I couldn’t put my raft in and paddle around. I didn’t see the lily pads as beautiful, but as an annoyance; but in reading Annika Thor’s novel, I came to view the lily pad’s strong resilience in a different, positive light….
    The Lily Pond, is the sequel to A Faraway Island, the first novel in a series about Stephie and Nellie Steiner, Jewish refugee sisters from Nazi-occupied Vienna, sent to Sweden while their parents are forced to remain in Vienna. A Faraway Island is a Mildred A. Batchelder Award and The Lily Pond is an Honor Book. Disclaimer here—I have not read the first novel in the series, and found that while I want to now read it, it was not necessary for following the events in the second novel. Unlike our title from last week, Soldier Bear, The Lily Pond has a dual focus—the effects of World War II on Jewish children and the coming of age for a 13 year-old girl. Thor utilizes the lily pond near Stephie’s school as a metaphor for Stephie’s life. At the beginning of this second novel, Stephie leaves the island where she has lived the past year to attend school in the city of Göteborg, where she will live with a family as a boarder. On her second day in Götenborg, she is introduced to the lily pond and the “dark and mysterious water,” hinting at events to come. Throughout the novel, the lily pond is a place where Stephie finds solace and refuge, a place where she can think through her anxieties about her parents, her yearnings for a relationship with Sven, the consequences of racism, the need for friends, and the devastation of war. Whether the lily pads are blooming and “Mr. and Mrs. Swan” are paddling around or “the yellowed frozen lily pads resemble spots of dirt sticking up from the ice… she know that under the surface their strong stalks are intertwined and reach down to the bottom, where they are rooted. The plants are alive, although the leaves are dead” (p. 217).
    There are several aspects of this novel that beg for discussion and inquiry. For example, I was struck, again, by the circumstances of war on children. I was reminded of the Kindertransport and the Refugee Children Movement; how children are dependent on the adults around them—both the good and evil ones. I thought about Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn and how they, too, were victimized, yet strangers sacrificed their lives to help them. On YouTube, I found a poignant interview with some of those who, as children, had been sent out of their Nazi-occupied countries; I recommend this short video, Painful Farewell, a Discovery TV production.
    A second and related issue is the power adults have over children. There are several instances where Stephie’s fate is literally in the hands of the adults around her. She is wrongly accused of cheating on a test by her German teacher and she is forced into silence by the husband and wife with whom she boards. On the other hand, her homeroom teacher comes to her aide over the accusation and her “foster mother,” a very strict Pentecost really listens to why Stephie broke some Pentecostal rules.
    Issues of guilt come to mind, too. Stephie struggles with aspects of guilt in her relationship with friends; her younger sister, Nellie, begins to question their Jewish heritage and faith under the indoctrination of the Pentecostal parson; but far more powerful, is the guilt Stephie feels between her parent’s circumstance and her own. While she is enjoying living in the city, attending a concert and a movie, and eating pastries, her parents struggle to find food, stand in long lines, and work very long hours with little pay. It is difficult for Stephie to reconcile her opportunities in light of her parent’s harsh conditions.
    Author, Annika Thor, “was born and raised in a Jewish family in Göteborg, Sweden,” (back flap) where most of The Lily Pond takes place. In addition, Linda Schenck, the translator, was raised in the U.S., but has lived in Göteborg since 1972. For me, this is crucial information—knowing the author has intimate knowledge of the location. I once read a novel where the main character traveled a highway through where I was currently living. I lost all interest in the book once I realized the author had locations of important sites (like McDonald’s) in the wrong towns, the scenery was inaccurate, and the travel time from one town to the next was completely off the mark; I lost confidence of the author’s description of the main character’s travels to Germany. If she couldn’t get a 100 mile stretch of road correct, what were the chances she could get the travels of her character correct? Understanding Thor’s familiarity with the location and her personal experiences there gave me a sense of authenticity I might not have appreciated otherwise. I found the characters believable, the context realistic, and the story compelling.
    Melissa’s Take:
    Like Gail I truly enjoyed The Lily Pond because of its literary merits and because it doesn’t sugar coat the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. Stephie knows her parents are in great danger and there is none of the fairytale-like quality found in texts such as Number the Stars (Lowry, 1989). The author also does a good job of presenting people as people- complex and good and bad. This is unusual in a Holocaust text for younger children where there is almost always a very definitive good versus an extreme bad. Aunt Märta would be considered a righteous gentile but not necessarily altruistic as she is presented as wanting to save a Jewish girl because it is the right thing to do and because part of that “saving” is demanding that she be baptized a Pentecostal Christian. Sweden is neutral and unlike in other countries at the time where transmogrifying all traces of Jewishness is for survival, in Stephie’s case, it is to appease a sense that the only way to be in to accept Jesus.
    As a Jew, I believe what the author really got right is what it is like to be a Jew in the Western world and to deal with Christian privilege (Schlosser, 2003) during the Holocaust and today. It is to be an outsider, an almost-equal, who is good enough to eat with the family sometimes and with the maid at other times as is the case with Stephie when boarding with the Söderbergs. Aunt Märta cares for Stephie but feels a duty to change her religion, to “normalize” her otherness. Sven befriends Stephie privately but cannot defend her in front of his parents. Then there is the worst cross that Jews have to bear, the myth that we “killed Jesus.” It invariably comes up and it is presented in this story as well.
    There is also the idea in the text, as in real life, that to survive, in this case socially, you must accept and participate in cultural rites that are not your own. Aside from being forced to go to church Stephie celebrates Christmas and worries that her younger sister is losing all traces of her heritage. The mysterious rich girl in Stephie’s class, Alice, who is also Jewish, shuns Stephie’s attempts at friendship, because she doesn’t want to endanger the prestigious and Swedish reputation her family holds. It is as if one cannot be both Swedish and Jewish and the Jewish part must go.
    Something that actually bothered me about this book is that is played in to so many Jewish stereotypes. Stephie’s father is a doctor. Her family is cultured. They are wealthy. The mother is elegant and always had domestic help. While this describes many Jews of the past and present, there are also Jews who are poor and uneducated and not used to the “easy life.”
    On a more positive note, the Swedes in this text are portrayed on the continuum of tolerance toward Jews. Unlike Number the Stars, where the gentiles are all righteous and the Nazis all evil, the idea and ideal of the Nazis and of Germany itself is presented in a variety of ways, giving a most balanced and humanizing view. Which I believe is important. If we can read part of ourselves in Nazi sympathizers who are really quite ordinary otherwise, we can see that evil such as the Holocaust is the responsibility of us all.
    Ironically, I was doing a search about Sweden and the Jews during the Holocaust and discovered that due to anti-Semitic issues in Malmo, the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a travel advisory for Jews planning a trip to Sweden in 2012. It seems that just because the Holocaust is over, anti-Semitism lives on.

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