Comrade Pavlik By Catriona Kelly Granta pound;17.99
I Choose to Live By Sabine Dardenne Virago pound;12.99
Surviving with Wolves By Misha Defonseca Portrait pound;17.99
Three children, three stories told in three very different voices but with one common theme: adversity. One story from the Second World War, one from 1930s Ukraine in the era of forced collectivisation, one survivor's account of a paedophile scandal of 1990s Belgium. Damage done in childhood, we are told, cannot readily be undone. This notion, propounded by Freud, is widely accepted; childhood is somehow more precious than the rest of life.
Conversely, children are weaker, more vulnerable.
Catriona Kelly, professor of Russian at Oxford University, spent years researching the strange case of Pavlik Morozov, a young teenager who was murdered, along with his younger brother, in western Siberia in 1932.
Confusion surrounded his death, but within a couple of years it had been co-opted by master propagandist Maxim Gorky into the mythology of the burgeoning Young Pioneer movement. For four decades it remained an iconic story in which heroic 13-year-old Pavlik (diminutive for Pawel) reported his greedy kulak (rich peasant) father to the authorities for hoarding grain and was punished for his devotion to the common cause by being stabbed to death when out gathering berries with his brother. Young Pioneers were inculcated with this tale, unlikely as it seemed, and untrue as it was.
The truth - if such can be determined, and Professor Kelly candidly admits that neither records nor surviving witnesses can agree on much - appears to be that Pavlik was just another tragic victim of family squabbles in a community devastated by Soviet state oppression. Resettled peasants were often destitute, and the Morozov family owned only a samovar, a lamp, a skillet, two plates, pots and some grain. Family relations were so grim that death threats and blows were recounted as normal domestic interchange at the trial. Pavlik's father was absent, in prison not as a result of being denounced by his son, but either for forging documents or on a continuing series of drunk and disorderly charges. The village of Gerasimovka was filled with bewildered, semi-literate farming folk who had been forcibly transplanted several hundred miles. The glamour thrown over this sordid affair by Gorky obliterated the sad truths of life in the Soviet countryside, which was surely the aim. Poor Pavlik.
Sabine Dardenne was 12 when Marc Dutroux abducted her and held her in a cellar for 80 days. She refused to give up her childhood, refused to call herself his "girlfriend", and despite being terrified, kept trying to do her Latin homework from her schoolbag. Her spirited account of her ordeal, her absolute defiance of the sexual and mental abuse that "the creep" put her through (when he told her that her parents didn't care enough to pay a ransom, it hurt as much as rape) is a clarion demonstration of why denial, despite what many Freudians say, is often the healthiest way to deal with adversity. After all, when you are locked in an underground room little bigger than a single bed, with a stinking chamber pot and mouldy bread to eat, chained by the neck in your underclothes, reality has little to recommend it.
Sabine's book is a welcome break from the "victim culture" and, as she says, offers ample reasons why paedophiles should not be let out for "good behaviour".
Misha Defonseca tells us that when she was six, in 1940 or thereabouts, her Jewish parents were deported from Belgium. She lived a year with some sympathisers, one of whom lived on a farm, which she loved. She feared they would turn her in to the Nazi invaders, and, aged seven, she took a tiny compass given her by the farmer, a haversack with two apples, some gingerbread and bread, and ran away "to the East", where she believed her parents to be. She tells us that she lived off the land for three and a half years, travelling 5,000 kilometres to the Ukraine and back via Croatia and Italy, sleeping out in all seasons, once seeing a concentration camp and the Warsaw ghetto, mutely visiting a band of partisans and twice being adopted by wolves. She arrived back in Belgium just on the day of liberation, was taken into care and started to speak about her experiences a few years later. No one believed her. Do you?
The winters of the early 1940s were among the coldest Europe has known.
Thousands of people died inside their own houses, let alone sleeping out with only a piece of oilcloth to protect them. There was widespread famine in the East, and food in the fields was not abundant. Furthermore, there was a war on, and some areas were devastated. How could a young child manage? How could a child traverse the mighty Carpathian mountains from Romania to the Mediterranean with no food or water? As for the wolves, there is a nice cover picture of the author with some wolves at a sanctuary in Massachusetts.
Let's not be cynical and say that publishing this book has anything to do with its author's recent bankruptcy. Let's say rather that when terrible things happen, such as your parents being torn away from you and no one loving you, it can be a comfort to make up stories in which even the most extreme enemies, even entire armies marching prisoners into a ghetto, cannot touch you.
It's a good strategy to refuse to face facts, but it's no substitute for a happy childhood. It seems as though Freud was right.