Chambers, Aidan. Postcards from No Man’s Land. Speak, 1999. 320p. Grades 9 and up. Realistic/Historical Fiction. (2003 Printz Award).
Told through the alternating narration of Jacob Todd, a British teen visiting Amsterdam for the first time to commemorate his grandfather’s involvement in the Battle of Arnhem, and Geertrui Van Riet, the nineteen year old Dutch girl who cared for and hid Jacob’s grandfather after the battle, this complex novel deals with the issues of euthanasia, sexuality, friendship, first love, independence, and memory in its exploration of the repercussions of war and loss. While Jacob discovers the wonders of Amsterdam and begins what seems to be an enduring love affair with the city, he struggles with the nature of Geertrui’s relationship to his grandfather, his own confusion about sexuality, and the intersection of these problems in the other young people he meets—his cousin Daan, Daan’s friend Ton, and a teenaged girl named Hille.
Thoughts- This novel was my least favorite of the Printz Award winners that I read this semester, mostly because I thought Chambers was just trying to stuff too many issues and themes into the story. Looking at the annotation above, I can count six major topics discussed in Postcards, and honestly, I think those are just the tip of the iceberg. That many “big ideas” combined with the alternating narration of Jacob and Geertrui as well as the shifting time periods (not to mention the random survivor narratives from the Battle of Arnhem that are seemingly thrown into the last third of the book) seemed unwieldy to me and kept the book from being “great” for me. I found myself racing through the Geertrui passages in an attempt to get back to Jacob’s narration because I found his character and his storyline so much more interesting than hers.
One thing I definitely appreciated about this book was the ambivalence all of the characters felt towards each other, towards the war, and towards society in general. I felt that truly mirrored both the modern teen experience and the historical experience of young people during World War II. That overarching ambivalence was, for me, the most authentic aspect of Postcards from No Man’s Land. I can easily see teen readers relating to Jacob, not for the circumstances he finds himself in but for the struggles he has to discover his own sense of self. Conversely, I think teen readers might struggle with the structure and pacing of this book. It was sloooooow for me, and while sometimes that works in a novel’s favor (like in Going Bovine), it can be a major detraction too. If I hadn’t been reading this book as a part of a larger project, I might have just put it down and moved on to something more to my taste; I think many teens would probably feel the same way.