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Hitler's Canary    by Sandi Toksvig order for
Hitler's Canary
by Sandi Toksvig
Order:  USA  Can
Corgi, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Copenhagen theater in 1940 Denmark sets the stage for drama the day the Germans invade. The story, based on true events, is told by Bamse Skovlund, youngest in a theater family. His mother Marie is a renowned actress and his father Peter a talented artist and set designer. He has an elder brother, Orlando and a big sister, Masha. Their story is brought more clearly to the mind's eye by Sandy Nightingale's black and white cartoon-like illustrations.

The title comes from the BBC radio saying that Hitler has the Danes 'in a cage and we just sit and sing any tune he wants.' Bamse's daredevil best friend Anton Beilin lives in the flat above them. His family is Jewish. When Uncle Johann visits and talks of 'the Jewish problem', it causes conflict with his brother. Bamse's gentle father worries about feeding the family and surviving the occupation. He argues with Orlando, who joins the underground. Bamse and Anton help him, though Bamse knows his father would disapprove. Peter explains to him what he owes his brother Johann, and that 'Life is never straightforward.' And Bamse sees his sister kissing a German soldier named Boris.

Then Hitler sends a Gestapo SS officer as High Commandant of Denmark. Papa loses his job, Marie encounters the Hitler Jugend, and Anton's dad is paralized by fear. Bamse begins to understand that it's not a game. Papa joins the underground after seeing Norwegian Jews en route to Auschwitz. Johann comes to live with them and to organize Danish Nazis in Copengagen. After Orlando is arrested, the younger boys act on their own initiative, attempting sabotage. There are riots on the streets, people die, and the Germans begin to move against the Jews. Most of Denmark's Jews go into hiding in the homes of friends and neighbors to avoid being rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

The Skovlunds work hard to get as many as possible to Sweden on fishing boats. Then Boris warns Masha that they're under suspicion, and that the SS will come soon. Marie decides to put on a show, starting by building a false wall to hide their Jewish friends. She gives the performance of her life, saving other lives in the process. At the back of the book are notes about the exciting rescue of the Danish Jews (less than two per cent died) and other Resistance activities, as well as the fact that many Germans in Denmark did not obey orders. As the author reminds us, 'There were just some good people and some bad people and it wasn't always easy to tell the difference'.

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