Danish novel is a hymn to the plight of refugee children.
Since its publication in 1963, I Am David‘s reputation has continued to grow. For a continent struggling to heal the scars of recent conflicts, the story of a child discovering his identity while crossing Europe on foot resonated. At the time of Anne Holm’s death, it was reported that the book had sold in excess of two million copies.
Winner of the award for Best Scandinavian Children’s Book, I Am David is credited with introducing generations of children to the horrors of concentration camps and plight of refugees. Ranked alongside Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, Nina Bawden’s Carries War, and Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as one of the most significant books set in or around World War Two, I Am David uses the format of an adventure story to teach children about the forgotten victims of conflict.
Unashamedly sentimental, the novel is told from the perspective of the eponymous hero. Born and raised in a concentration camp he has limited knowledge of life beyond the perimeter. One night a guard offers David an opportunity to escape. Carrying a compass, bottle of water, bar of soap, and a loaf of bread he enters a world he has never known and begins an arduous journey to Denmark.
Withholding information about the concentration camp’s location and precise date the author has attempted to create a sense of any time. David’s refusal to trust information in books printed after 1917 is the first major hint that he has previously been incarcerated in a Soviet labour camp. The precise country he has escaped from is left ambiguous although some critics have concluded it is probably Bulgaria.
Published in an era when people were fearful that the Cold War would erupt in a fresh global conflict, the book reminded readers that in eastern Europe people were still being crushed by tyranny, terror, and torture.
Despite some finely sketched atmospheric detail and moving sequences, an over-reliance on coincidence dilutes the book’s impact. David’s twin quests to find sanctuary and self-discovery are splintered by incredulous plotting which momentarily throws the reader out of the narrative. Flawed but engaging, I Am David’ has taught generations of child readers about the aftershocks of 20th-century warfare and its victims while eulogising hope and freedom.