I just finished reading a book that I was hoping to have my 8th grade students read as part of their World War II unit in a couple months, and I am annoyed. The book’s full title, “Where’s Sylvia?”: The Story of an American Child Lost in Nazi Germany, sounded so promising. It’s a true story, and the woman who lived it (Sylvia Rebhan) is a friend of my mother. I wanted very badly to like this book. Unfortunately, Sylvia’s fascinating life story is undercut by the extremely poor writing of the author, Linda LaMura McFadden. The apathetic writing style and shockingly poor grasp of conventions nearly kills even the most emotional and gripping moments of the tale. McFadden seems addicted to both commas and quotation marks. There were comma splices left and right in this book, along with commas in sentences that didn’t require them in any way. She also had a penchant for putting words in quotes that don’t need it. For example, in a section in which Sylvia reflects on the bakery her parents ran near a baseball stadium, McFadden writes: “My parents did know that on occasion, “plenty” of Giants fans would walk by their store on their way to the stadium.” I don’t get the quotation or comma overload, but as an avid reader and writer, I do not appreciate them. As an English teacher, I loathe them. If a student turned in a paper that read like this book, they would get it returned with more red ink slashing the pages than a Frank Miller graphic novel.
The writing is really a shame, because it’s an engrossing personal account of one of many civilian lives irrevocably altered by WWII. When considering the toll of the war in Germany, most peoples’ minds jump to Jews, Gypsies, and other “undesirables” (as they were called by Hitler) being massacred. People always remember the immense loss of life on the battlefields, the thousands upon thousands of soldiers that would never return home. It’s easy to forget about the average German, one who had no particular allegiance to Hitler and just wanted to make it through the war alive. These struggling civilians are the focus of Sylvia’s story. As a young New York girl sent to spend a summer with her German relatives in 1939, she has no idea what’s coming. At the beginning of the war, Sylvia’s family tried to smuggle her out of the country and back to the U.S., but the borders were clamped down too tightly.
Hence, Sylvia is forced to endure the war as an “enemy alien” in Germany, rejected by the Axis but bombed by the Allies regardless. Her story is one of resourcefulness and frustration, as the little girl is forced to mature and take on adult responsibilities even before she reaches a double-digit age. She is hidden in a convent under an assumed name for some time, then shuttled between relatives in areas that are only ever temporarily safe. Sylvia and her family endure bombing after bombing, racing to reach safety whenever and wherever they can find it. In one particularly dramatic scene, Sylvia must ride her bicycle through active battlefields, swerving around mines, soldiers’ foxholes, and soldiers themselves.
The book traces roughly eight years total, six of which Sylvia spends separated from her increasingly desperate mother. It truly is an interesting story, and at times even astonishing. It was a quick read, written simply enough — despite the weak conventions of the author. I do not plan of having my students read this book, but I do plan on asking Sylvia to join us in the classroom to tell us her story in her own words. I think it will only improve without McFadden acting as the middleman.