Title: The Dollmaker of Krakow
Anytime you pick up a book that is set during WWII you must be prepared for a sad or at the very least a bittersweet ending; even when it's a middle-grade book.
The Setting & Characters
The Dollmaker of Krakow is set in German occupied Poland. As a survivor of WWI whose missing a leg, the Dollmaker is a quiet, downtrodden older man. To me he felt like the kind of old man that you just want to hug and listen to all day long. I adore him.
As this is a middle grade (ages 9-11) book it conveys the horror of the treatment of the Jews and the Polish people in a way that children can understand. And even though I knew how it was likely to end and that not everyone could get out, I still couldn't wait to read more each time I had to put it down.
Our other main character is a doll that has come to life. This doll named Karolina, lived in the Land of the Dolls first and experienced a war herself. She is unlike Pinocchio in every way and instead is our Jiminy Cricket of the story, always telling us what is right and wrong.
The focus of the book is the telling of two parallel stories. One of the Land of the Dolls being invaded by rats (told in past tense) and the other of Poland being invaded by Germans (told as its transpiring). As the story is told from Karolina's perspective we have a constant voice asking why people are doing these things and questioning why the Germans are so awful; but also questioning why the adults don't fight back. This allows the story to be told in a way that keeps the message clear; the actions of the soldiers are wrong and immoral and that the Polish are afraid and most are not at fault. I like this treatment of the story and morality a lot. It allows R.M. Romero to keep the story true to actual events (ie: Jews being moved around and eventually onto the trains if the Germans aren't just outright killing them in the streets) without the need to lie about what happened.
I believe it's important we tell children the truth of events and situations so that they can know not to repeat these actions. If we ignore history and it's awful moments then I fear humans will make the same mistakes again. We must teach our children to have their eyes open and be able to identify fascism, racism, injustice, etc. early and then to try and give them the tools to fight back long before an army is invading.
There is some fictional magic in this book. It's used sparingly and really only to allow for two major events. First for Karolina to exist at all in our world (talking doll and all) and second for a major plot point to be plausible. I think it's brilliantly used and absolutely love that it's very specific and used sparingly. It helps keep the majority of the events in the story realistic.
I have only one major complaint about this book. Which frankly is amazing as even some of my favourite books still have multiple issues.
Word choice is something that really good authors pay a lot of attention to and actually think about.
All of the vocabulary in The Dollmaker of Krakow is well chosen (for reading comprehension of the 9-11 age bracket and for tone and impact to the story). All except for one word:
This is what Karolina calls the Germans. Some are worst witches than others in the dolls mind and she does discuss that briefly. There is also a distinction made between magicians and witches (I will concede that witch is lowercase on all uses at least). A magician can be good or bad. I'm not sure why Romero decided to use the word witch, but I really hate it. Using it to describe the Germans soldiers perpetuates the use of witch as a word for someone evil or wrong.
In actual fact there are people who identify as Witches in modern day (yes my caps usage is intentional). Witches are commonly followers of Wicca but can be Pagans in general depending on who you ask. Witches are generally people who believe in nature as the strongest force in the world and follow the sentiment of 'If ye harm none, do what you will'. An obvious hurt no one belief and certainly contrary to the definition used.
I believe this is likely an innocent mistake by Romero to choose the word but it's still a mistake. If Romero wants a word for monster or evil that children would understand easily I believe there are much better choices.
Despite my cringe each time Karolina called a soldier a witch, I still absolutely loved this book. The Dollmaker of Krakow is a gem. Written in the magical voice of a little doll who comforts and helps a lonely old man; it's impossible not to be in love from the opening word to the final period.
If you are a crier I would recommend some tissues for sure. I'm not a crier but still nearly succumbed at one point. For me that is a showing of how amazing and powerful this story is.
This is a book that transcends age or genre. It tells the truth, and reminds the reader at every turn of what is right and wrong. In the scenarios in The Dollmaker of Krakow there are very few grey moments of morality. Instead it is black and white which I believe will help children understand the travesties better. Destroying people is never okay; whether the destruction is running people from their homes, starving them or (obviously) ending their lives.
A Special Spot
A spot next to The Book Thief and The Sky is Falling. is now being reserved on my shelf for The Dollmaker of Krakow. I can't imagine not adding it to my permanent library in a place of honour. It definitely deserves to be there next to other fantastic WWII children's novels.
Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.