Safe- Vanessa Harbour

Safe Vanessa harbour

Whilst Flight offered a rip roaring classical adventure blending horses, escaping Nazis and friendship forged in peril the follow up in Safe, Vanessa Harbour takes that and turns it up to eleven. 

A second adventure for Jakob and Kizzy flips the narrative to Kizzy’s perspective, and we get a insight into her vulnerable world in contrast to the tough and independent veneer she presents. Furthermore the hidden stories of childhood experiences in World War II are explored wider here with a gentle nudge to be aware of how whilst some parts of the world are very much changed, some other things are exactly the same. 

Key words:

Horses, War-Children , Escape, Family, Prejudice

Content Notes: there both historical context and plot based recollections of mass murder, racism, reference to genocide, implied starvation, guns are fired at children both lethally and non-lethally, considerable danger to life and on-page death but all within the safety of middle grade appropriate writing..

In the dying days of the War in Europe, whilst General Patton and his forces are carrying out Operation Cowboy to bring home the Lippizaner breeding stock, Heinz, now guardian to both Jakob and Kizzy, is approached by the shady Faber to recruit help on a mission to save another small collection of rare horses from the Nazi-held Sudetenland before Russian forces sweep in. 

But Jakob and Kizzy realise he is lying when they discover there are 5 times that number of horses, they are abandoned and Faber attempts to gun them down as he flees with the car they were gifted. 

Soon the duo realise they are not alone at the seemingly abandoned manor, and as they decide to bring all the horses to safety, they learn that family is the bonds that you make as much as who you are kin to. 

As a former history teacher with a special interest in social, working class, minorities, female and childrens history it was beautiful to see in Flight how Vanessa Harbour managed to honour without reducing either’s experience of both the Jewish and Roma communities experienced in Nazi occupied Europe. 

In Safe, Ness goes a step further to incorporate further hidden experiences; the lack of belonging anywhere for mixed heritage children especially of marginalised communities, the orphaning of children of those who sheltered Allied fighters and refugees, the experience of children with disabilities and more. 

As a historian and equally  the sister of a profoundly autistic brother, and who is most likely both autistic and ADHD herself, I am deeply and painfully aware of both the largely hidden horror of the experience of the physically disabled, neurodivergent and developmentally delayed children during Nazi rule or occupation and how the social stigma attached to disabled people enabled and exacerbated mass murder much like it was utilised in genocide against Roma and Sinti communities and mass murder of LGBTQ people.

Knowing Ness herself is a disabled author means the inclusion of Zuzu and Zamek will have a personal touch, the fear of what has been, and what could come again if we refuse to stand against hate. 

She must never forget how much darkness they were all carrying

Kizzy’s thoughts looking around the children they find at the castle

Equally, whilst hard for children today to understand why Germans didn’t rise up against the Nazis it’s also important to honour the sacrifices made by both active resistance and those who sheltered pursued peoples including Allied soldiers. Sometimes it’s swept under the carpet, especially for those in Germany- and Austria by association- unless noteworthy numbers saved like Schindler such behaviour I have heard berated as the ‘least’ they could do sometimes by people quoting statistics or Martin Neimöller’s confessional prose of warning, this is often without understanding and always without empathising with the true risk, context of Nazi Germany and the social paranoia created by the Gestapo. This is not to release from judgement those who willingly joined in the persecutions and enabled the regime, but allows us to weigh our own hearts against the average German under Nazi rule.

But by playing down the acts of courage, those judgements play down the human empathy and the trauma for those left behind. So the inclusion of tales of orphans like Anna and Damek are very important to remind us of what people had to lose when they resisted the treatment of people like Jakob, Kizzy and Strom’s family. 

During a war a week can be a lifetime.

Kizzy to Anna

And therein lies the first way this book particularly relates to today- the Gerfunder Kinder (Found Children) represent all displaced peoples. Their painful mixture of surviving being an act of pride in who they are, coupled with the deep scars of trauma  and the psychological battle of not wishing to leave but realising there is no real other choice if they want to live. 

This book was written across the later Syrian refugee crisis when Pre-Covid European families were offering spaces in their home, and in the time since, the Ukraine War where Russia’s aggression has displaced millions. One crisis where people have been seen as deserving of support and welcome, and the earlier not so, reflecting the fear the children feel that they will be split apart or not well received. 

We see this in how Kizzy was an unacceptable ward to the Countess, later comparing herself to Anna as Kizzy doesn’t fulfil the 1940s Austrian aristocratic expectations of femininity while Anna was born into it, and yet both girls are orphans of war. Similarly so are mixed heritage children, sons of doctors and sons of farmers, and disabled children. 

Displaced persons or refugee status isn’t something that happens to a certain type of person, like Death it has no preference. There we go but for the grace of time, place and context. 

‘You know it is all right to miss your parents and Heinz?’

Jakob to Kizzy

The second is rising up to ‘make your own family’. Never for one minute do these children not miss their family, they were loved, cared for and happy with the families they were born into, Vanessa doesn’t pretend that it goes away. 

Yet whilst that is truly lost, but they don’t have to be alone forever, Kizzy and Jakob have found a new father figure in Heinz, bonded deeper by the events of Flight together. It doesn’t ‘replace’ or erase the pain of loss with either of their real fathers, but offers the strength and rock of support, belief in them and unconditional love as Heinz allows Kizzy to be herself and he defends her against the ‘finishing’ the Countess insists upon. 

Heinz, without her needing to say knows Kizzy neither wants nor can be the feminine that the Countess understands, and he embraces and  validates her just as she is, short haired and trouser wearing. 

Equally the bond between the children themselves, the shared experience in Flight has bonded them, but so has their shared trauma, they have become each other’s family.  And they cope in their own way whilst Jakob passes for survival and doesn’t observe Jewish customs or keep kosher (we can’t really blame him after 7 years without other Jewish people around) , Kizzy is unable to mask her Roma self for her own sanity and neither child stigmatises nor challenges the other for their choices, they simply let each other just be and equally raise each other up to enable them to be- whether that is Jakob’s dream to be a rider in the Spanish Riding School or Kizzys to spend a life with nature and animals unencumbered by the expectations of society. 

‘Home is where you feel safe… My family is with all these children wherever they are.’

Anna to Kizzy, Jakob and Strom

Furthermore we see how the Gerfunder Kinder have formed a family of sorts, Anna the de facto mother, Strom the father, Matylda and Damek the older siblings and the rest the younger dependents. 

They are frightened of letting Jakob and Kizzy in to their little world at first, especially Strom. But soon the shared experience of trauma bonds them as kindred, and each encourages in each other the healing and behaviour they need to survive; allowing Strom to be both bossy and busy for he feels useful in a desperate time; acknowledging & finding coping mechanisms but never forcing selective mute Zamek to speak, finding ways to validate and support polio survivor Zuzu, or simply Kizzy making trips into the house to save Anna the pain.

They validate each other and so allow to heal what can be healed without pressure or judgement on the journey nor speed. 

This is the ‘making of family’ but never erases the pain of untimely loss either, and the hearing of stories binds rather than distances the children with Kizzy and Jakob. Kizzy learns how Strom and his sisters have an additional level of struggle as half- Roma, half-Czech they are not welcome in either community and how Strom is thankful that Kizzy has remembered the skills taught to her, that they keep both their mothers’ honour in remembering the things they taught them. 

And then there’s the added thrill of the epic journey with many more horses, and even more desperate Nazis running from the Americans in one direction and Russians on another. The stakes are definitely higher with small children and many more horses, and is a testament to human spirit when things get tough, even when it seems you are going to fall down a mountain, you can rise up. 

Thank you so much to Firefly Press for inviting me on the tour, please check out the other stops on the tour this week. 

Safe by Vanessa Harbour

Safe by Vanessa Harbour is published by Firefly Press 

thank you so much for my copy. 💜


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