From the back cover: Gustave doesn’t want to move from the exciting city to the boring countryside, far from his cousin Jean-Paul and his best friend, the mischievous Marcel. But he has no choice. It is March of 1940, and Paris is not a safe place for Jews.
When Paris is captured by the Nazis, Gustave knows that Marcel, Jean-Paul, and their families must make it out of the occupied zone. And when he learns that his new friend Nicole works for the French Resistance, he comes up with a plan that just might work. But going into Occupied France is a risky thing to do when you are Jewish. And coming back alive? That is nearly impossible.
The thing that strikes me the most about Gustave’s story is that sometimes it’s impossible to know if you’re making the right decision at the right time. If Gustave’s family leaves Paris too soon, will they regret losing everything if their fears do not come to pass? If they wait too long, will they make it to safety at all? And once the Germans invade France: should they stay in the countryside and wait for visas to America…or flee now to Spain?
But a decision is necessary, because to not decide (while technically a decision, itself) will certainly bring nothing good. Making a single decision about how you will react to something can make an uncontrollable situation slightly less terrifying.
Once in the countryside, their situation is in some ways better, in other ways worse. At least in Paris, surrounded by family and friends, they didn’t have to worship in secret. But in the countryside, they are closer to farms and better able to trade the few assets they were able to bring with them for food.
Like Gustave–who wrestles with how to hide his religion and the best way to react when it comes up at school–I’ve wrestled with religion, too. My circumstances are laughable compared to what Gustave must endure, but I do know what it’s like to feel it would be best to not express my beliefs openly. My life, however, would never be in danger if I shared my beliefs with someone untrustworthy.
As Gustave grows up on the verge of in-hiding, he learns that some problems have no right answer: like figuring out how to react when someone asks why he’s never in church, Gustave learns that sometimes we just have to make a choice, stand by it, and hope for the best. But other problems are easier to quantify: what is the morally right choice? What can we live with? And for what would we never forgive ourselves?
It can be frightening to stand up for what’s right. I once read a self-help book called Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, and that’s exactly what Gustave learns. He makes choices he’d rather not have to make, choices that scare him–but he pushes through and comes out the other end. Is he forever changed?
But it’s change he accepted, change he doesn’t regret, and that’s the best kind of change there is.