Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: I am David

Lena Greene, South Africa

I Am David book cover

Review of I am David by Anne Holm. New York: Harcourt, 1965/1993. Originally published as Jeg er David by Gyldendal, Copenhagen, 1963. Translated from the Danish by L.W. Kingsland.

This is a story for older children, perhaps ten years old and upwards. If English is not the children’s mother tongue, sharing it with a group by reading aloud to them, a chapter at a time, is recommended. The author has created an unusual adventure story about a boy called David who has grown up in a prison camp but escapes with the unexpected help of one of the hated prison guards. The narrative aims to sensitize readers or listeners to the suffering of others but also to arouse their admiration for this frightened but determined twelve-year-old, and to provoke their outrage at the injustice of his situation. Young readers or listeners are likely to identify with David who, although he does not always feel brave, finds ways of dealing with the times when he is scared, lonely and sad. At one point, ‘David struggled with all his might against the fear that grew within him…All the coldness and darkness and infinite loneliness of the world filled David’s mind until it seemed ready to burst”.

Although it is never described as such, this book can be considered a philosophical novel for children. David, who seems to have been the only child in a men’s prison camp, grew up without family or history and knows nothing about any other kind of human society, except what he learns from the adult prisoners and what he observes after he escapes. His experiences, and the questions he wonders about, encourage exploration of concepts such as family, belonging, identity, freedom, goodness, evil, resilience, language, and education.

The nationality of his captors is not specified, but they are portrayed as powerful, evil, cruel, and not to be trusted. David survives in the camp because one of the prisoners, Johannes, took on the role of mentor and tutor and became the only person whom David trusted. After Johannes dies David survives for three more years in the camp by not allowing himself to think about Johannes because of the memories it brings of terror, hatred and frightening questions, and of watching Johannes’ death, which the guards claimed was from ‘a heart attack’.

While living in the camp David has learned a great deal. The concentration camp seems to be somewhere in eastern Europe, but he learns from Johannes and other prisoners to speak and even read more than one language. However, although he knows the words and grammar of English and French, and something of other languages, he has no experience of many of the objects and concepts to which the words refer. For example, when he first sees an orange he does not know that a round orange coloured fruit, which he has never before seen or tasted, is called an orange. He learns from Johannes to treat others with polite respect, even those he does not like, to care about the kind of person he becomes and to think for himself. He learns from life in the camp to hate violence, to endure hardship, to hide his thoughts, to be watchful at all times and to trust no-one except Johannes. Without Johannes, David gradually accepts that he must rely on himself.

When he finds the courage to attempt his escape he is terrified that he will be recaptured by ‘them’ and trusts no-one as he sets out with a little food and water, a compass and a few instructions to guide him, knowing only that he must go south to Salonika, then find a ship to Italy, and then travel north to Denmark.

During David’s journey across Europe he tries to behave according to the precepts that Johannes had taught him, learns, and is puzzled by, what human life is like outside a prison. He encounters both kind and cruel people, but always feels himself to be an outsider who does not belong, and is often perceived as ‘odd’ or ‘strange’ by the people he meets. He takes every opportunity to observe and listen in order to discover how to be a person like other people, and a child like other children. He discovers and appreciates beauty, learns how to smile but struggles to know how to play, and gradually allows himself to feel affection. He finds out much about himself, becoming less rigid in his judgments. After a variety of experiences and many challenges he at last arrives in Denmark and is able to be reunited with the woman he has discovered is his mother.

This story, which has been described as ‘celebrating resilience and the optimism of youth’ is now somewhat dated but is still moving and thought provoking for both children and adults. The representation of nationalities and gender is stereotypical at times and the plot is unlikely but it remains a gripping account of a child on the verge of adolescence responding to adversity with courage and hope.