Written by Mal Peet
Candlewick Press, 2007, 424 pp., ISBN: 978-0-7636-4063-7
This historical fiction young adult novel contains two parallel stories. The first story takes place during the Hunger Winter in Nazi-occupied Holland. Two Dutch born British spies, code named Dart and Tamar, are on a mission to unite the fragmented Dutch resistance fighters. The men begin the story as comrades who rely on each other in order to survive the horrors of World War II. Their friendship unravels when Dart falls in love with a Dutch woman called Marijke who is secretly in a relationship with Tamar. Dart, a puzzle aficionado, cannot, ironically, crack the code of Marijke and Tamar’s hearts. Dart becomes unstable through his addiction to speed, his loneliness, and his fear. Finally learning the truth of Marijke and Tamar’s love, Dart does something that he will regret the rest of his life — he orchestrates his friend’s murder in order to possess Marijke, who is pregnant with a son by Tamar. This is the story of espionage, passion, and betrayal.
The other story is the tale of the aftermath of spying, love, and disloyalty. It is 1995 in London and fifteen-year-old Tamar is left a mysterious box by her grandfather, William, who has recently committed suicide. A puzzle lover like her grandfather, Tamar invites her distant Dutch cousin, Yoyo, on a trip to follow the maps left in the box and solve the mystery she is given. What Tamar discovers is love, family secrets, and the stubborn residue of past harms.
The reader is along for the ride as the story flips between the modern day and the Hunger Winter. Tamar and the reader learn about the other Tamar, the spy who was betrayed by his friend William, codenamed Dart. Modern day Tamar is the daughter of the son who was born to Marijke. William made a decision to live with his guilty secrets but cannot quite do it. He sees a chance for redemption through his granddaughter, Tamar, who is given this unusual name at William’s urging. The name is both a plea for forgiveness and a vehicle to pass on generational guilt. A tool of William’s redemption, Tamar’s path is orchestrated to end at her father’s house. Her father, having ferreted out the truth of his birth years earlier has a nervous breakdown and deserts Tamar and her mother. He is unable to forgive William and cannot forgive the choices that William has made.
Tamar does not allow herself to be a tool of redemption. The end of the story takes place tens years later and is narrated by the now grown-up Tamar who is living in Holland with Yoyo where they are expecting their first child. She is full of hope but has no closure regarding the past. Tamar says, “The past is a dark house, and we only have torches with dying batteries. It’s probably best not to spend much time in there in case the rotten floor gives way beneath our feet” (p. 423).
Mal Peet, the British author who won the Carnegie Award for this novel, writes that he had a childhood friend whose father was a spy in Nazi-occupied Holland. Peet saw the actual code scraps spies like Dart used and this was his beginning point for this novel. Peet writes on the back page of the book jacket that this novel is “a plea for forgiveness.” Forgiveness is the major theme of this complicated and complex novel where there is no end to war, to crimes, or to love. Concepts such as sin and redemption, right and wrong, and good and bad are examined in Tamar in the context of World War II and then again in the present day. This novel has no easy answers and gives many opportunities for the reader to see that good and bad may become hopelessly confused in war and in peace. More important, Tamar allows the reader to experience the aftermath of wrongdoing and live through characters who make very different meanings out of the tragic narratives of their lives.
As a piece of historical fiction, Tamar’s author Mal Peet fulfills his responsibility to the reader by offering a carefully researched backdrop with actual events woven throughout the story. Aesthetically, Peet challenges the reader to solve the mystery of the novel but also to start to explore how to solve the mystery of how to live a real life, one replete with guilt, shame, and the fragile possibility of love.
Tamar could be used in a text set that includes other stories of difficult decisions set during World War II in Europe such as Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi (David Chotjewitz), and The Book Thief (Marcus Zuzak). Following the theme of a child protagonist refusing to serve the past, a text pairing possibility is the historical fiction young adult novel, A Gathering Light (Jennifer Donnelly), which is the story of a sixteen-year-old who learns to let the dead stay buried in order to construct her own life.
Melissa B. Wilson, The University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas