review – HEROES OF THE SECRET UNDERGROUND
Louie lives with her brothers, Bert and Teddy, in a hotel run by their grandparents. It is one of Sydney’s grand old buildings, rich in history … and in secrets.
When a rose-gold locket, once thought lost, is uncovered, it sends Louie and her brothers spinning back in time. Back to a world at war: Budapest in the winter of 1944, where their grandparents are hiding secrets of their own
Heroes of the Secret Underground was inspired by bestselling author Susanne Gervay’s family and their flight from Budapest, Hungary during the Holocaust.
When Louie and her brothers find themselves back in Budapest in 1944 we are given deep insights into what life was like for the Jews of Hungary at the hands of the Nazis, and how terrifying it must have been for the children torn from their homes and families and trying to survive on the streets in the best way they could.
Susanne Gervay takes us inside the world of the secret underground where children were heroes, risking their lives to save their families and others.
When we enter the streets of Budapest, this gripping time slip is impossible to put down, especially when Louie’s little brother, Teddy goes missing.
I loved the relatable characters and the authenticity of this story. It’s clear from the writing that this is deeply personal for the author as she brings us into Louie, Bert and Teddy’s minds and hearts.
We are taken deep into the world of their grandparents Zoltan and Varushka who were children back in 1944 doing their part to not only survive, but to save the lives of others.
The beautiful writing in this book helps the reader picture the setting and empathise with the fear that the Jews of Budapest must have felt.
Like venomous spiders, the soldiers with their crossed-arrow armbands attack. People are running. Hiding in alleyways. Jumping into underground drains.
In spite of the hardship depicted in Heroes of the Secret Underground, there is also hope.
Verushka whispers, ‘Shush, Mamma. They may take away the candelabra, but they can’t take the light. That is always ours.’
The authentic descriptions transport the reader back to the world of Budapest 1944.
Louie and Bert look down from the stairs at the rabbit warren of makeshift alcoves. Families have set up tiny houses with their shoes tucked into the corners and brown suitcases in the other. Kids have made nooks and crannies and small places to hide. Some young people are studying with their books on the floor.
Susanne Gervay takes us deep into the lives of her characters so that we follow their journey every step of the way.
Arrows of sun push away the night. Louie opens her eyes in fright. Panic makes her urgently scan their hiding place.
Heroes of the Secret Underground is an important work of historical fiction told in a unique and compelling way with modern day characters taken back to 1944 to personally experience those harrowing times for themselves.
Culture, resilience, courage and the importance of family are strong themes in this book and provide great starting points for discussions in the family or classroom.
Heroes of the Secret Underground is for readers aged 9+. A detailed glossary at the back provides historical context for the story, and a teacher’s guide is available from the publisher’s website.
WRITING HEROES OF THE SECRET UNDERGROUND
We’re so lucky to have the amazing Susanne Gervay visiting today. Susanne shares her secrets on how she wrote her new book.
- How long ago did the idea for this story come to you?
This is a story I have been formulating forever. The first book I wrote was ‘Next Stop the Moon’ (HarperCollins) more than 20 years ago. It was about growing up with the complexities of the past impacting on the present, as the child of refugees in Australia. You can’t get it now, but this reviewer sums it up:-
‘I read this book years ago and it was one of those first books that recognised immigrants coming to Australia and making it their home. It was a really breakthrough and important book and totally loved Rosie who was 12 and set in the sixties with the first man on the moon.’
It was too early for our consciousness and identity. Hard to believe that, given the current climate of inclusiveness and diversity.
The story I wanted to write wasn’t there yet so I wrote a picture book published, ‘Ships in the Field’ (Ford Street Publishing). Again it was the story of war, escape, migration and finding home. That was published 2021. It received two Children’s Book Council Notable Awards:-
Ships in the Field by Susanne Gervay & Anna Pignataro
Ford Street Publishing ISBN: 9781921665233
With issues of immigration featuring heavily in news headlines over the past year, the release of this title couldn’t be more timely. Ships in the Field concerns one family’s experience of migration as seen through the eyes of a child. Forced from their homeland by war, the unnamed child and her parents embrace a new life in Australia. Once a farmer, Papa now works in a factory, while Ma, a teacher, takes in sewing. Despite the horror of the past and the unknown future ahead, this family is a joyful one—though something is still missing for our child narrator ….
This is a book that needs to be read more than once. Many of the layers weren’t immediately evident on my first read-through. The shadow of war haunting the family is only mentioned in two lines of dialogue between the child and her toy, Brownie, yet its positioning after scenes of family frivolity is stark. This added to Ma’s crying behind closed doors and the narrator’s fear of night delivers an impact that more graphic depiction could not. It is obvious that author and illustrator have worked hard to get the balance between darkness and light just right. While at first glance this is a deceptively simple story, it soon becomes apparent this balancing act was no easy feat. Hope is very much the prominent theme, but it is only visible because of the darkness behind it. Too much darkness and the light would be snuffed out.
Ships in the Field is a book that will never date. It’s a story that will be every bit as relevant fifty years from now as it was fifty years ago.
Reviewer: Jenny Mounfield ***** 5 stars
The experience of war and migration weaves into so much of my writing. My adult short stories published in literary journals and anthologies are filled with it. I am particularly proud of my story ‘Days of Thailand’ in the India Australian anthology ‘Fear Factor: Terror Incognito’ (Picador) that sits alongside stories by Tom Keneally, David Malouf, Rosie Scott, Sir Salman Rushdie.
However my true driver has always been to write this story for young people, so they can meet challenges with resilience and know they can be heroes of justice. Finally it led to my four year journey to write ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’.
So the answer to your question. Writing ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ took a lifetime.
- What inspired Heroes of the Secret Underground?
Everything I write is influenced by what I see around me, feel, am passionate about. My new novel ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ is deeply personal. Part autobiography, history, philosophy and fantasy, when you read it, you know me. No secrets. Ursula Dubosarsky the Children’s Laureate wrote.
‘This is a personal story that has huge meaning to all of us, beginning in a beautiful safe world which turns suddenly to chaos and terror. A child discovers for herself that there is history that can’t be hidden – it cries out in the darkness of secrets. But it’s also a story of light and love and exceptional courage.’
- This is your first foray into fantasy and time slip. What were the challenges? What did you enjoy the most?
I now have total admiration for writers in this genre. Time slip is so hard to get right. Creating and maintaining two worlds that interconnect is challenging. Everything has to be balanced. In ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’, the bats from Centennial Park Sydney have their parallel in the bats on Margaret Island in the Danube, Budapest. The summer roses of Australia are paralleled by the winter roses of Hungary. The candelabra in Australia transported to World War 2 is worked and reworked so it is authentic in both times. There is nothing that is not thought about, assessed, connected, as time slip requires you to be true in both worlds.
Fantasy is another form I have never written. Like time slips, it is creatively challenging to intertwine fantasy and reality to make both believable and hold the themes of ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’. For example the mermaids of the Danube River which are folklore have multiple roles in ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’. They are part of the time-slip technique to travel from the past to the present. They contain the theme of their power to save and destroy, as what happened in The Danube in 1944. The mermaids are in the lyrics of ‘The Blue Danube’ by Johann Strauss that plays throughout the whole story reflecting culture, folklore and the power of music.
Did I enjoy it? I don’t know. It felt like a huge puzzle that challenged my mind and heart and gave me sleepless nights, as I tried to solve what at times seemed unsolvable storylines. In the end, I guess I was satisfied and that had to be enough.
- How important do you think it is for writers to step outside of our comfort zones? Why?
As writers we have to continue to push boundaries, so we can create works that reach further into ideas. I often write before my time. When I wrote ‘I Am Jack’ school bullying was not on the agenda. When I wrote ‘Butterflies’ disability did not have the focus it has today. When I wrote ‘The Cave’ challenging sexual consent, Australia was not ready. However pushing the barriers, enables us to be thinkers and our readers to be thinkers too.
- What’s next for you creatively?
I feel strongly that there is inadequate representation of people from the sub continent. They are part of my life and community here. As always I present kids with courage meeting the challenges of life. As always I present the importance of family and friendship. This new series is about the quirky and wonderful ways three young kids from different families as they relate and make a difference. I asked a sensitivity reader to check my very early draft for authenticity of the sub continent culture. She wrote:-
I absolutely loved the story — the fun, the friendships and the issues that you tackle. I love how you’ve combined whimsy with topical and important issues, all done in a very sensitive and inclusive way.
The serious subject of racism, how we should all be accountable for our actions and the need to stand up for those who are marginalised and whose voices are often silent. I identified with Hari so much – when I lived in the US as a child, there were kids and the occasional adult who bullied me and said that a ”chocolate” kid who wasn’t a Christian didn’t belong in that school. Back in Sri Lanka, I was bullied and thrown against walls because I was too quiet. As an adult, I’ve been the butt of racist jokes and comments (like a guy in a suit once calling me ”ethnic garbage” and when it happened, I was often just too shocked to question or to stand up for myself. So…a child would be dumbfounded, especially when the mean words come from an adult. When Hari said, ‘You are the best friends ever,’ I actually shed a tear…
Samantha Sirimanne Hyde
WHERE TO FIND SUSANNE IN THE VIRTUAL WORLD
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