by Michelle Barker
Illustrated by Renné Benoit
Of course young readers will always hear of the brutality of war. It's in the news, in video games, in the movies. But picture books can illustrate the kindnesses shown during war, the ones that keep people from truly becoming barbarians. A Year of Borrowed Men is one such enlightening and enlightened read that will touch young readers and the adults fortunate to find this book and share it with them, whether it be in classrooms or home.
Based on Michelle Barker’s mother’s childhood memories of Germany in the final year of World War II, A Year of Borrowed Men recounts the time when three French prisoners of war–Gabriel, Fermaine and Albert–come to live and help on the family farm. Seven-year-old Gerda sees them as “borrowed men”, on loan just until the ones the German government borrowed from their community to aid in the war effort, including her Papi, are returned.
The family which includes Gerda, her mother, one brother and three sisters knows that they are supposed to treat the men like prisoners, forcing them to sleep in the area off the animals’ barn. But Gerda comes to see the men as “our French family: gentle Gabriel, prickly Fermaine, and cheerful Albert, who loved games” (pg. 9). Though trouble arises when the local police are notified by a neighbour of a simple kindness the family shows the men, Gerda and her mother continue to interact with them in a familial way, seeking ways to make their lives a little more pleasant, a kindness which they extend back to the Schottke family.
The story in A Year of Borrowed Men ends with the liberation of the “borrowed men” and their departure for home but the message that generosity of spirit goes on forever is a meaningful one at this time of year. Released on Remembrance Day, A Year of Borrowed Men will be a valuable and touching read for years to come in classrooms commemorating those whose lives were touched by war. But on the cusp of Christmas–also a memorable event in the story–A Year of Borrowed Men will speak to inherent kind-heartedness and be a reminder to demonstrate our humanity even in the most challenging of circumstances. The potential, unspoken, that the Schottke family’s adherence to the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” might extend to their own family members away at war, is undeniable. But their charity to strangers in a time of war, when others only demonstrate anger and suspicion, is a worthwhile lesson in empathy. Michelle Barker gets the tone right for this message, telling her mother’s story simply and forthrightly, as a child might see the circumstances. The fear and confusion is there but it is superseded by a fundamental goodness to do what is right. Look at Renné Benoit’s unassuming illustrations of this child, this farm, the men and relive a simple though still harsh time, when war was horrific but there was a gentleness that could still be found. Thank goodness.