Robber and Me, by Josef Holub [...] . "The Robber and Me" is a touching story of a young orphan who not only finds a home; he finds courage, honesty, and the love of a real family.
THE ROBBER AND ME
Josef Holub was born in Czechoslovakia in 1926, and he spent much of his youth in the Bohemian Forest, which is much like the setting of "The Robber and Me." Holub trained as a teacher, but the German Army conscripted him into service, where eventually the French and Americans made him a prisoner of war, and while he was a prisoner, he was forced to clear land mines. He escaped, and returned to Germany. After the war, he continued to train as a teacher in West Germany. "Holub, whose most recent job was a post office official, lists some of his occupations as smuggler, art dealer and postman. The author complemented his professional career with youth and trade union activities" (Editors). Holub really did not begin his writing career until he retired; he found he simply could not devote enough time to his books while he worked and volunteered his time to many civic organizations.
Holub says one of the reasons he writes from a child's viewpoint is because he writes of the times and memories of his childhood (Editors). It is clear from Holub's biography that he used his own experiences when he wrote "The Robber and Me." The main character, eleven-year-old Boniface is a city boy who must adjust to a very different life in the forest. As he says early in the book, "I was often afraid, sometimes of nothing at all (Holub 8). The author manages to capture the dark dampness of the forest, and show the fear of a young boy, because of his own experiences as a young boy in the forest. There is a saying in writing, "write what you know," and Holub's work is a good example of this adage. He makes the young boy's experiences real and true because he knows about them first hand, and so he makes them more believable and authentic to the reader. This is an historical novel, set in 1867, and perhaps Holub's experience studying to be a teacher came into play in the setting and historical details of the novel, which are rich and plentiful. Often, the writer brings his or her own experiences and beliefs to the novels they create, and this award-winning children's book is a clear example of why personal experiences make writing richer and more believable. Holub's book won the 1998 Mildred L. Batchelder Award for the year's best translated work.
The culture of the time this book is set (1867) comes through very clearly, from the creaking cart Boniface is riding in when the book opens, to the large golden loaf of bread freshly baked to celebrate his birthday at the end of the book. While Holub weaves the suspenseful story of Boniface and the black-hatted man from the forest, he also manages to skillfully include many aspects of historic German culture, which makes the book more than just a fictional account of a young boy's maturing. It is also a good historical novel if children want to learn more about the history and culture of the German people. For example, Holub describes the village quite vividly after Boniface wakes up from his terrible night in the forest. "The sun was shining on a village street. There were big and small houses, with barns and sheds. The smell of dung heaps rose to the window" (Holub 23). Immediately, the reader knows the time is not the present, for hardly any homes in the city contain barns and sheds, and the smell of dung clearly indicates horses are the main mode of transportation, as they leave their smelly calling-cards behind on the streets. Later, when Boniface is exploring the village, he discovers who are the richest people in town by the size of their dung heaps. "The biggest farms had the biggest dung heaps. That seemed logical. A lot of oxen, cows, and horses made more manure than a few geese. And so it was easy to discover who the rich people were" (Holub 47). Right away, the reader understands this is an agricultural society, and the people who own the most animals have the most money, which makes sense. Not only can a child learn more about the culture from the simple explanations in this book, they make sense, even to a child, and so it is easier to see how people lived and prospered in 19th century Germany.
The book is peppered with little details about the culture and everyday life, from the lack of toilet paper to the milk "still warm from the cow" (Holub 56). People in rural Germany lived simple lives, and the simplicity shines through in the many details of country life that Holub weaves into Boniface's story. As Boniface learns more about what it is like to live in the country, so does the reader. This is an excellent premise for adding details about the culture, without the details sounding affected or detracting from the narrative.
Another interesting detail that would certainly stand out for children reading this book is the important part the church played in everyone's life. Everyone in the village must attend church on Sundays, or face a fine, and no one is supposed to work at anything except the most necessary tasks. "Anyone caught at home, possibly even still at work, was quickly made poorer by a few guilden" (Holub 69). Today, we enjoy freedom of religion, and the freedom to choose how and when we worship. While the life of the rural village may seem idyllic at first to the young boy, the author quickly makes the reader aware that the village people faced far different cultural mores and restrictions than we face today, and their lives were not really all that idyllic. They worked hard, and had very little leisure time, and what leisure time they did enjoy was still dictated by rules and fines, just as the man who sings the beautiful song on Sunday clearly indicates. Imagine not being able to sing a song on Sunday! This brings home the rigid lifestyle to the reader, and makes them more aware of the cultural differences between then and now.
Holub's story brings up several issues that are relevant to readers of all ages, but especially relevant to young readers. Boniface must learn courage to mature, and as he befriends the son of the robber, Christian Knapp, he grows more courageous. One critic noted, "Boniface gains the courage to uncover the truth about the robber and his alleged life of crime, but the truth alone cannot save the wanted man from being hunted" (Brown and Roback 79). Not only does he find the courage to defy his uncle and remain friends with Christian, who is really a good and decent boy; he finds the courage to speak out to Frederika about the stranger in jail, again defying his uncle's wishes when Frederika releases the stranger. More importantly, he finds the courage to stand up against the cruel Schoolmaster.
Boniface also learns the meaning of friendship during the story. He befriends Christian when no one else will, and he learns to love the gruff Frederika, who hides a warm heart of gold underneath her brusque exterior. At his uncle's Boniface learns about the love of family, and finally finds people who love him - it is where he belongs. He learns the importance of friendship, kindness, and love. He also learns not to judge people by their appearances, or by what others think of them. Christian is not bad, as just about everyone believes, and his father is not really a robber, as Boniface discovers. Many of the villagers help teach the young boy these lessons, as the farm hand does when he says, "I've known Knapp since he was boy,' he said. 'He was never band, and now everyone blames him for goodness knows what, when he can't defend himself. As every child knows, the tamest ox will become dangerous if he's driven into a corner'" (Holub 90). As Boniface discovers his inner strength and courage, he also learns how not to judge others, and how to show them kindness.
There is also an underlying theme of cruelty throughout the book. It begins with the cruel and disgusting driver who abandons Boniface in the forest, and continues with the sadistic schoolteacher who so enjoys tormenting the children, especially Christian. When the Knapp children are taken away from their mother, it is the ultimate in cruelty, and yet, everything comes out well by the end of the story. The cruelties of these characters are necessary to show the kindness of the other characters, almost like light and dark.
This tale might appeal to children in a variety of ways. First, it is written from the young…