Grin and bear it

9th January 1998 at 00:00
AND THE STARS WERE GOLD. By Annie Campling. Orion Dolphin Pounds 3.99

Sitting in his suburban apple tree, Richard wonders why his actress mother has forbidden him to visit the elderly neighbour, Stefan Wassilewska.

Richard is fascinated by the strangeness of the house and its Polish owner. When his mother disappears, hearing how Mr Wassilewska lost home and family in the Second World War helps him to accept his own loss.

In her moving account of Mr Wassilewska's life - based on the true stories of boys wrenched from their homes in the night by Russian soldiers and abandoned in the desert wastes, who then escaped to join the Polish Army fighting for the Allies - Annie Campling (better known as Gaye Hicyilmaz) shows the excitement of growing up in wartime and the terrible sadness of the young refugee who travelled alone across continents and survived on his wits. Like other young soldiers, Mr Wassilewska found a friend in Voytek, an orphaned bear cub adopted by the soldiers in Persia who grew up tame and friendly enough to wrestle with them in off-duty moments, to help load ammunition in battle and, most important, to lend a furry ear to their confidences.

The bear, too, was real - he eventually died in Edinburgh Zoo in 1963 - but in Campling's story Voytek is an excellent device holding together a story that does not shirk from the complex politics of the time or the complicated emotions of the refugee who can never go home.

However, a jarring note is the author's mistake in using the feminine form of her hero's name. He should properly be Mr Wassilewski.

It is odd, too, that she feels the need to change the name she has won awards with for one perhaps "easier" for marketing people to pronounce. If Stefan the refugee had changed his name to Stephen and made his house conform with his neighbours', would Richard have been alerted to his differentness and benefited from his rich life?

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