Hitler’s Canary by Sandi Tokskvig

I started reading this book last night. When I finished the last page, I got out of bed, made breakfast, then stood in front of the bifolds looking out at the garden while drinking coffee. I watched a magpie watching me, and thought that as long as there are Danes, there maybe hope for the human race after all.

It was 4am, so I was probably a bit more emotional than I usually am.

Now I don’t read a lot of YA fiction. I think the last one was Predator’s Gold from the Mortal Engines series. But I actually made the effort to track this one one down after my much better half (she’s a huge Toksvig fan) played me an interview where Toksvig talked about her family’s involvement in a nationwide plan to the evacuate Danish Jews (or as the Danes liked to call them, Danes) from the occupied Denmark. Toksvig had written a short story about it. I’ve got more than a passing interest in the exploits of Scandinavia during the war. In fact, I thought their sacrifice and bravery has never received the recognition it deserved, so I wrote a book about it. I wrote about Norway, but it could just have easily been Denmark.

I didn’t find Toksvig’s short story, but I did find this book, and as you may have already guessed, I think it’s certainly the best YA novel I’ve ever read.

There were 8000 Jews living in Denmark when the Nazis invaded (April 1940). The country was small, and ill-equipped to fight, and so submitted in pretty short order. In fact, the term Hitler’s Canary was coined by the British press, as they now viewed Denmark as a caged bird, singing for the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, as with most things regarding the British press, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Nazis planned to raid every Jewish house on the eve of Rosh Hashanah (29th September 1943), when they knew every family would be at home. But when the Danes got wind of the plan, they weren’t having any of it. They decided to help their Jewish friends and countrymen simply because it was the right thing to do.

So how does a small nation defy the Nazis and help 8000 people escape to Sweden? Well, it appear the answer is together.

Toksvig tells the story from the viewpoint of a young Danish boy growing up during the occupation, surrounded by his surreally eccentric family. I always think that when you want to tell a story about a nation, then the best way to do it is from a much smaller viewpoint, and children are great for this. Basme sees the war through eyes that become less childlike as the atrocities come closer to the people he loves. The courage you see in him is reflected across the whole country, which is what makes this such a powerfully funny and terrifying story. The prose is grim, and still manages to carry a hint of dark humour, the dialogue is as good as you’d expect from Sandi Toksvig and the pace is masterful, slow to begin with then building into a dramatic race against time as the whole of Denmark comes together in what must be one of the greatest national acts of courage and sacrifice in history.

What I also liked about this story was that the author didn’t shy away from some of the painful truths that get glossed over when retelling tales of war: not all Germans were bad: indeed many of the Jews made their escape because German officers and men turned a blind eye to what was happening. And not all Danes were good: some of the Jews were betrayed by fanatical Danish nazis who in some ways, the author said, were worse than the people they were fighting.

Yes, I’m going to give it ten out of ten. An important, overlooked piece of history that needs to be brought out into the open. What the Danes did back then should serve as an example of how tyranny can be defeated today.

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