Odette was a young French Jew living in Paris during the German Nazi occupation of France and World War II. She and her family were not religious, but her grandparents were Polish Jews. Odette lived with her mother and father in a little two room apartment in a building managed by non-Jews Madame Marie and Monsieur Henri. Marie and Henri care for Odette as godparents and she spends a lot of time with them.
When the German Nazis begin invading France, Odette’s father joins the Resistance and leaves home to fight. He is soon captured and placed in a war camp. Odette and her mother continue living in Paris as the German occupation strengthens. After German soldiers come looking for Odette and her mother, who escape by hiding in Madame Marie’s closet, Odette is sent to live with a family in the country. She is told to lie about who she is, so she changes her last name, learns Catholic prayers so she will blend in. Her mother eventually joins her and while accused of being Jewish, they live undiscovered in the vendee until the French liberation.
While her family is not religious, Odette finds herself drawn to the rituals of the Catholic Church that she participates in during her hiding. When she and her mother return to Paris, she struggles with returning to her old life and questions who she really is. After attending a ceremony to bury the ashes of Jewish victims of death camps, she accepts herself as a Jew.
This story is about a young girl struggling to find herself during a very difficult time. Unlike The Diary of Anne Frank, another young girl who lived (and died) during WWII, Odette’s story doesn’t end in death. While Odette’s Secrets takes place during World War II and there are details describing how Jews were treated, this is a less graphic read, making it a good introduction to a terrible time in history.
Library Use Suggestions:
I would introduce this book to students studying World War II. I would present it and The Diary of Anne Frank as differing personal accounts, not in the actions of the Nazis, but as two young girls viewing the same war from different places with different results.
Introspective and accessible, this fictionalized history of a Jewish child surviving the Nazi occupation of France uses an elegant simplicity of language.
Odette, quite young, lives comfortably in a Paris apartment “on a cobblestone square / with a splashing fountain.” Watching a newsreel, she sees “soldiers march, / their legs and arms straight as sticks. / A funny-looking man with a mustache / shouts a speech.” The next day, she sees a Jewish-owned store with smashed windows. Mama and Papa are secular, but “[w]e are Polish Jews because / Mama’s and Papa’s parents and grandparents / in faraway Poland / are all Jews.” Papa joins the French army and is taken prisoner; yellow stars are assigned; Mama sends Odette out of Paris. For 2 1/2 years, Odette practices Catholicism in one village and then another, growing attached to religious ritual and the countryside. Macdonald’s free verse uses unadorned images: a blanket from Odette’s devoted (Christian) godmother; schoolchildren pounding out “La Marseillaise” on desks with their fists to drown out rowdy German soldiers; those same children rolling Odette in a thorn bush when they suspect her secret. Odette’s first-person voice matures subtly as she grows in age and in comprehension of the war’s horrors.
Based on the real Odette Meyers (nee Melspajz), this thoughtful, affecting piece makes an ideal
Holocaust introduction for readers unready for death-camp scenes.
(2013, January 1). [Review of Odette’s Secrets]. Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/maryann-macdonald/odettes-secrets/