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Innocence in an Adult World

A coming-of-age story that pays tribute to the heroic and humane

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In one scene, for example, the children ask their father what intolerance is. "It's when some people refuse to let others have any opinions different from their own, or when they hate people with a different color skin. And when they're ready to kill them because of it," he replies. Charles De Gaulle he characterizes as a man "able to say no when everyone else was saying yes." Recognizing traitors and "Collabos" is not easy, he admits, but advises them to look out for people with "shifty eyes." As for va lues themselves, what they are, he reaches out his arms and points to the rows upon rows of bookshelves in his beloved library.

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These simple, almost banal-seeming words and gestures have meaning, as we see, because the children have been learning about values all the while from the daily example of their parents' actions. The father's explanations merely clarify and underline what the children have already come to know through their own experience.

With seeming effortlessness, Labro accomplishes the rather difficult task of portraying both the child's innocent view of the world and the more experienced and informed outlook of the man that the child became. And then, there are moments when the true moral significance of events is plain enough for even the most naive to understand, as when the first contingent of German SS men marches into the little town:

"These men were clad in black, with silver buttons, braid, and insignia, and their masklike faces, with their fixed stares, made the [regular German] soldiers who had preceded them seem almost debonair.... And the sight of a little white death's-head framed by two bleached bones, embroidered on the black background of a fluttering pennant attached to the front windshield of the lead vehicle, confirmed the vague impression that in this land of wine and rugby, of plums and grapes, peaches and corn, veal an d poultry, chestnuts and mushrooms, one of those decisive moments had just occurred, with all its overbearing insolence, when life - as it has been understood until then - changes meaning, cast in a new light by the sudden flickering of flames."

For all its considerable charms and its very moving blend of humor and seriousness, there is a slight touch of sentimentality about this novel that some readers may find a little cloying. But it's difficult for a child to pay tribute to the heroic and humane qualities of his or her parents without the risk of sounding sentimental at times, and the voice that narrates this novel is both beguiling and sincere enough to strike a responsive chord and help readers reenter a time and place where the meaning of

right and wrong shone forth with unmistakable clarity.

MAGIC WORDS To evoke the time I'm talking about, I take pleasure in rediscovering - and this recovery must be effortless - the vocabulary of that French poet and troubadour who throughout all his live knew how to use simple, old-fashioned words, once filled with magic. Words that today are drained of their life and meaning, set aside on the shelf, once used to be strong and straight to the point, as clear as the sky over rooftops, as pure as young love, as direct as a mailman streaking across fields on his bicycle. -From 'Le Petit Garcon'