Review published on May 13, 2017.
This novel may be only a slim volume, but that does not prevent it from being very powerful and moving. Set in Lithuania during the Second World War, it is the story of a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl, Yael, who comes home from a day’s hiking to find her village destroyed and the population gone. As German troops flood the area, Yael flees into the woods. There she meets another girl, Rivka, and together they learn to survive, but when Rivka dies of a fever, Yael, half-dead herself, seeks shelter on a remote farm. The only occupant is Aleksei, a mute who is shunned by others in the area. At first he refuses to help, terrified of the repercussions for aiding a Jew, but gradually he takes pity on Yael and lets her into the house.
A year of isolation follows as love gradually develops between Aleksei and Yael. Their life is very basic and almost idyllic in its simplicity, “this pocket of peace” as Yael calls it, until the Germans come back and she is forced to flee again. The second half of the book traces Yael’s desperate struggles to stay alive for the sake of her unborn child, her life with other partisans hiding in the woods and her eventual return to her village of Selo. The ending is left open, but there is the possibility of hope for the future.
I found the story most compelling. With Yael, you feel the fear of being discovered, the horror of being forced to live like an animal and the growing delight in her relationship with Aleksei.
Stephan Collishaw uses language sparingly, but very effectively, especially to describe the terrible winters and the suffering of the Jewish partisans.
The book is very well constructed; the reader is plunged straight into Yael’s story as she hides in the forest with Rivka at the beginning and it is not until about half way through that we learn the full story of the massacre at Selo and realise the full horror of what it must have been like for Yael to find her life and family snatched away in a moment.
Through it all runs the image of the stork. Yael’s father’s pet name for her was “my little stork” and in the Jewish faith it is forbidden to kill a stork, the name deriving from the Hebrew word for kindness. This book is a story of human endurance and manages a delicate balance between horror and kindness, savagery and love.
It is a most haunting book and one I will remember for a long time.
I think reading groups would also find it a rewarding read, especially in the light of more recent persecutions and horrors.
Gwenda Major 5/5
The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw
Legend Press 9781785079191 pbk Mar 2017
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