The story is set against a backdrop of destruction in Europe during and after World War II. Much of the early action takes place in Warsaw and other areas of Poland. The opening chapters describe the South Polish prison camp where the children's father, Joseph Balicki, has been sent. The novel then switches to Warsaw under the Nazi occupation, where Joseph has returned to hunt in vain for his splintered family. The children's experiences living on their own in Warsaw provide further glimpses of the war-torn city. The Warsaw uprising of 1944 and the virtual destruction of the old city are vividly described. The locale shifts during the last two thirds of the book as the children journey to Switzerland to find their parents. As the book progresses, Serraillier paints a vivid portrait of western Poland, Berlin, and rural Germany in the aftermath of the war, depicting the long lines of migrating refugees, refugee camps, soup kitchens, cities devastated by bombing, and finally the beauty of Switzerland unscarred by the war, where the family's reunion finally occurs.
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The Silver Sword is a realistic novel about war that depends heavily on description for its literary effect. Because the setting of war-torn Europe shapes the children's experiences, Serraillier gives detailed and vivid descriptions of the ravaged countries and of the hardships the children endure. The role these problems play in building the children's characters is revealed several times by biblical parallels. Ruth tells Bible stories to the children in her school, and their favorite is the one which most inspires her as well: Daniel in the lions' den. She sees the hardships she faces every day as the lions, and she believes that if she is patient arid trusting like Daniel, she too will be delivered. Switzerland, as the children's destination, becomes the promised land that they reach after long wandering in the desert of the war.
The silver sword itself provides a recurring symbol of hope. The only vestige of the Balickis' home, the sword symbolizes the family's unity before the war. Joseph offers the sword to Jan as a pledge, and through Jan the sword serves as the crucial connection between Joseph and his children. It inspires Ruth to undertake the journey to look for her parents, and it spurs the children on as they travel. When the sword gets left behind at the Wolffs' farm, the children's luck changes for the worse; when the sword is returned, it cuts through the red tape of Swiss immigration and leads to the children's reunion with their...
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As a novel about the effects of war, The Silver Sword confronts the effects of violence on a large scale and depicts a great deal of suffering. Although Serraillier never minimizes the hardship the family endures, he never graphically depicts the worst violence of the war. The novel shows that goodness and courage continue to exist in individuals, despite the evils of war. Jan is a special example of this theme; he is an attractive and sympathetic character, particularly in his special touch with animals, but his various misdeeds often create added difficulties for the other children. His good intentions and genuine repentance make him forgivable even when he breaks the law. The final promise of a new society with peaceful ideals brings the book to a hopeful conclusion.
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Topics for Discussion
1. The Silver Sword has been published with a different title, Escape from Warsaw. Which title do you think fits the book better? Why?
2. Why is it important to Jan that Joseph gives him the sword? What function does the sword serve in the story?
3. The night that Mrs. Balicki is taken away by the Germans, Edek shoots at the soldiers. They come back later and blow up the house. Should Edek have shot at the soldiers? Why or why not?
4. Jan steals things throughout the book. He apparently feels justified in stealing, even when he gets caught. Why does he need to steal? Is he justified or not? Why?
5. The son of Herr and Frau Wolff was a German soldier in Warsaw, the sort of soldier Jan particularly hates. The young Wolff was killed trying to keep Warsaw under German control. Why do the Wolffs help the children? Why is Jan able to accept their help?
6. Why does Jan finally decide to help Ruth save Edek instead of going after Ludwig?
7. Why does Jan have trouble settling down after the war is over and life no longer presents as many struggles?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. The Silver Sword is set in Poland and Germany during and just after World War II. The author includes much description of the damage the war has done to the two countries. What effect do these descriptions have on the story?
2. Ruth, Edek, and Jan must all try to act like adults when their parents are no longer around to take care of them.
Where in the story do you see signs of how they are growing up? What adult qualities do they display?
3. Read the autobiographical book Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, written by a girl hiding from the Nazis with her family. How do Anne's experiences compare with those of the children in The Silver Sword? Why do you think Serraillier gave his book a happy ending? Do you feel that the ending of The Silver Sword makes light of the real tragedy suffered by millions of children, such as Anne?
4. Read one of the other books written about children's experiences during World War II (try Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene, They Didn't Come Back by Hans Peter Richter, The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall, or I Am David by Ann Holm.) How do these novels portray people from the different countries involved in the war, especially those on the "enemy" side? How do the experiences of the children in these books compare with those of the children in The Silver Sword?
5. Trace the development of the silver sword...
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For Further Reference
Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1971. Contains a biographical sketch of Serraillier.
MacCann, Donnarae. "Militarism in Juvenile Fiction." Interracial Books for Children 13 (1982): 18-20. Includes The Silver Sword in its discussion of young adult books dealing with war.
Taylor, Anne. "A Comparative Study of Juvenile Fiction Dealing with the Second World War." Emergency Librarian 11 (November 1983): 13-21. Compares various books for young adults that are set during or otherwise examine the issue of World War II. The Silver Sword is discussed in the context of other works.
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