Far to Go is another of those novels I waited quite a while after its release (and tremendous critical acclaim) to read. In this case, as I’ve read Alison Pick’s work before, it wasn’t that I had any doubt whether it would be worth reading. Rather, the subject matter made me a little reluctant. If you teach high school English and World History, once you’ve gotten everyone through Schindler’s List and Night and the second world war for another year, there’s a little shrinking part inside that says, “Can I really cope with another Holocaust novel? Do I have it in me to read about all the horror again?”
What makes “another Holocaust novel” brilliant, and worth reading, is of course a fresh perspective on an all-too-familiar story, and this is exactly what Pick brings us in Far to Go. Her characters (like her own ancestors) are Czechoslovakian Jews, secular and assimilated, loyal to their country, and caught completely off guard by the events that unfold after the Munich Pact, when their Sudetenland (where they live) is ceded to Nazi Germany.
The Nazi conquest of the rest of Czechoslovakia soon follows, and Pavel, Anneliese, and Pepik Bauer find themselves identified primarily not as Czechs but as Jews, subject to all the restrictions of the encroaching Nazi regime. Concentration camps are, as yet, a vague rumour which nobody fully believes; anti-Semitism begins appearing in smaller ways at first, and the Bauers do not grasp what is happening until it’s too late to escape — though not too late to get Pepik on a Kindertransport, a train taking children out of Czechoslovakia to relative safety in England.
The most interesting thing about this story is that it’s told through the eyes of Marta, Pepik’s nanny. Marta, who is not Jewish, sees the new anti-Semetic attitudes directed toward her employers but doesn’t fully understand the consequences. Her self-centred naivety leads her to commit a horrifying act of betrayal — far more horrifying to the reader, who understands far better than Marta or even the Bauers what’s really at stake.
We read this book with the advantage of knowing history, but it’s written in such a way as to remind us that people caught up in the middle of historic events don’t share our perspective: not knowing what’s about to happen, they make decisions that in retrospect seem foolish and even cruel, because they can only act with the knowledge they have. What was about to happen to the Bauers and people like them was so unprecedented and horrific they simply couldn’t prepare for it, because even if they’d been told, they wouldn’t have believed it. Their story is a memorable answer to the question my students often ask when we study the Holocaust: “Why didn’t the Jews just leave while they still could?” There are so many layers of answers, but the inability to see history in perspective while you’re living through it is one that is vividly illustrated in this beautifully written and unforgettable novel.