Masters of Silence
Masters of Silence
Any minute now, the soldiers would be on top of them, and then what? Would they be arrested? Shot? Tortured? The images of what might happen swirled through her head like a raging fire. Her last encounter with Nazi soldiers had frightened her. Now, she was on the brink of panic.
Up ahead, Henry was still signaling to Marcel: a change of direction, a rifle that was lowered, a regrouping of the soldiers. Marcel signaled to Henry to move back into his bush. Suddenly, the regiment came to a stop. The forest was dead quiet. Helen held her breath, fearful of making even the smallest sound. That’s when one of the soldiers cried out, “I think I hear something up ahead.” This is it, Helen thought. Our journey ends here. And then, Marcel stepped out from behind his tree and came face to face with the Nazi soldiers.
More than 70 years after the end of World War II, stories of heroism, small or large, still resonate with young people generations removed from the conflict. With Masters of Silence, Kathy Kacer keeps alive the tense and terrifying experiences of young people of the time and reminds today’s children of the need for courage in the face of oppression and hatred.
Desperate to save her children from the Nazis, Helen and Henry’s mother leaves them at a French convent where only occasional visits from a local mime relieve their worry and loneliness. But when the Nazis descend upon the convent in search of Jewish children, Helen and Henry must flee again, trusting the not-yet-famous Marcel Marceau to lead them to safety.
Backed by solid research into the Holocaust, Vichy France and the little-known story of Marcel Marceau’s Resistance activity, Kacer brings political and military conflict into individual focus through realistic characters and an exciting plot.
The narrative advances through the siblings’ alternating eyes and experiences, and the relationship between the two keeps them sane in an insane world. Helen misses her parents intensely, but Henry suffers even more, traumatized into silence by his loss. Kacer links Henry’s selective mutism with Marcel’s silent clowning, showing the value of other ways of communicating than words. Readers also see the importance of silence during that time when speaking the truth can create unspeakable danger.
Supporting characters are also sympathetic. While frightening, the Nazi soldiers still react as humans, not machines. The nuns are more multi-dimensional than one might expect. Agnes is severe on the outside but caring and compassionate within. The Mere Superieure, who seems so severe, worries deeply about events beyond her control and the children in her care.
While anchored in the past, Masters of Silence connects well to the present. Readers clearly see the trauma that results from parents and children being torn apart by political upheaval and desperation. The experience links vividly to today’s international refugee crisis, making this both a modern and historical novel for young people.
Like many modern refugees, Henry, Helen and Marcel take a long and exhausting journey, its fear and dangers vividly described. Yet, while rumours of horrors and terrifying confrontations fill the imagination of the children, the book does not dwell on violence. Fear, suspicion and tension are constant, but except for the loss of parents and the threat of the unknown, the worst brutalities of the Holocaust are distant, making the novel accessible for younger readers.
The book includes an interesting appendix which describes the background of Marcel Marceau and his involvement with the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation. One might wish for an epilogue to know the fate of the siblings, and perhaps a map to orient readers unfamiliar with World War II European geography. Overall, however, Masters of Silence’s spare yet compelling writing effectively captures a child’s point of view in a terrifying time.
Wendy Phillips is a former teacher-librarian and the author of the Governor General's award-winning young adult novel, Fishtailing. Her second novel, Baggage, will be released in 2019.