Twelve-year-old David has never known anything but life in a Communist concentration camp. He doesn’t know why he’s there or who his family is, and he doesn’t expect life to ever be any different than it is. But when a guard gives him the opportunity to escape, he must come to terms with a world he is unprepared to live in.
Anne Holm’s I am David is not so much an escape story (although it is that), but a story of personal transformation. At the beginning of the story, David mistrusts everyone. When the guard offers him a chance to escape, he tells himself that “[it was] certainly a trap”. Not realising that Italy, the country where he travels to first, is not a Communist country, he is suspicious of everyone. Everyone may be one of them, or if not one of them, liable to hand him over to them at any moment. As he experiences acts of kindness from strangers, however, he slowly begins to recognise and trust goodness.
Despite being on the run, David finds joy in the new-found, hard-won beauty and freedom that he experiences. But as the story progresses, he learns that beauty and freedom are not enough in order to be happy….
“He should never have entered the house. Maria … Whenever he had looked at Maria and she had made him smile, he had been aware that there was something he had forgotten, something important.
He had forgotten the most important condition that made it possible for him to go on living: that he should never again grow fond of anyone. When Johannes died he thought he would die too. But when he had recovered and knew he was not going to die, he realized that he must never, never care for anyone again – never. That was what he had kept in mind through all the years that followed – until he saw Maria.
And now nothing would ever be the same again: even if they were not looking for him, even if he could preserve his liberty and could avoid being too cold or too hungry. It would never be the same again, because he would always have to remain himself, a boy who belonged nowhere.”
Of course, the story doesn’t end there, but I won’t give away the rest of David’s journey and transformation. I will say that I am David is one of the best children’s novels I’ve read. As a young boy’s perspective on a new and strange world, it’s masterful. The story is raw and real, but it’s also beautiful and poignant without being in any way saccharine. It’s well worth reading as an adult, so if you missed this in your childhood, you can make up for it now….