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The cover of A Faraway Island, a Swedish novel by Annika Thor just translated into English, is utterly bland. Looking at the stock art of two girls looking out into the sepia-toned distance, I had a hard time getting myself to start reading. But now I’m embarrassed about that judging-a-book-by-its-cover cliché, because the story is deeply compelling.
The first of four books in a popular Swedish series, A Faraway Island tells of 12-year-old Steffie and 8-year-old Nellie, Jewish Austrian sisters who are among 500 children sent as refugees to Sweden during the run-up to World War II. Though these children are the lucky ones, Steffie doesn’t feel that way: She struggles to learn Swedish and is racked with homesickness, even as her sister picks up the language with ease and settles in.
Poor Steffie’s only solace is her parents’ promise to come to claim the girls within a year. But this rescue, of course, grows more and more uncertain as Hitler continues to clamp down on Jews and ramp up his world-domination ambitions. The novel has much in common with the American Girl books: It makes a gentle history lesson, and a moral lesson about accepting differences, into a page-turner.