Book review: Seeking Refuge by Irene N Watts

A graphic adaptation of a child refugee's arrival in Britain


Seeking Refuge (tradewind Books £11.95) is a graphic adaptation of the second in a trilogy of novels by Canadian children’s author and playwright Irene N. Watts, based on her experience of escaping from her native Berlin on the second Kindertransport at the age of seven. It follows the graphic novel Goodbye Marianne, based on the first book of the trilogy, which also features art by Kathryn E. Shoemaker. Seeking Refuge begins with the arrival of the first Kindertransport at Liverpool Street Station in 1938 and reveals how 11-year-old Marianne Kohn must now adjust to life in England in order to survive.

It stands on its own apart from Goodbye Marianne and the trilogy; the reader learns what has happened in Germany from Marianne realising that in London she can enter parks and sit on benches as they don’t bear signs “for Aryans only”. A policeman’s uniform evokes memories of the Gestapo who attacked her parents. “Aunt Vera”, her foster mother, immediately corrects Marianne’s English and puts her to work assisting the maid as domestic help. At school, Marianne is called a “hun” and a spy. Few understand what the growing crisis in Europe portends for Marianne’s family. While serving tea at Vera’s bridge party Marianne seizes the chance to tell one guest that her mother is a good cook, and asks: “You have work? Here is address to write please”. Vera reprimands her for trying to find sponsorship for her parents: “They must wait their turn. A refugee needs good manners”.

As war looms, Marianne and her schoolmates are evacuated to Wales; she has to contend again with a new country, a new language, and prejudice against her for being a German and a Jew. Her new host mother finds her “an answer to our prayers” — she wants her to replace her deceased daughter and asks Marianne to call her “Mam”. Their next door neighbour calls out “Mochyn” when Marianne passes by, and she knows it means “pig”.

Shoemaker’s pencilled illustrations in tones of grey convey the bleakness of Marianne’s lonely Kensington and rural Wales. Each chapter starts with a map that indicates the distance between Marianne and her family and signifies the uncertainty of their future.

Seeking Refuge contains much about hope and the resilience of the spirit in times of adversity. While the book is recommended for ages nine and older, adults, too, will find it engrossing.


Ivy Garlitz is a poet and critic

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