The three boys – Pierre, Rene, and Fat Marcel – pride themselves that they are good liars. It’s the only thing left to them really – their father always told them not to kill anyone, steal anything, or cheat. So they don’t. But they’ve got to act up somehow, so they lie. Sometimes they lie about where their father is or who knocked over the pie in the kitchen or who stole the cookies out of the cookie jar… It’s really fun.
And then one day, the Germans roll into town. Suddenly every word spoken is important – sometimes a lie would be devastating, but other times, a lie might save a life…
This story is distinct among children’s stories from WWII. Usually children’s stories are about kids who smuggled gold past the Nazis on their sleds, or who helped to rescue Jews, or who were Jews themselves. They tap into the heart of the war. This story is different because it tells the story of three boys whose lives were only partially affected by the war. For the rest, as the narrator himself says, “my childhood was mostly like heaven”. [pg. 4]
We are introduced to the three boys as they sit around trying to think of taller and taller tales to tell. To them, lying isn’t a sin – it doesn’t have moral weight – it’s just a fun game. A way to prove quickness of mind. Who can come up with the quickest, most realistic lies? Their mother disapproves of their lying ways and fusses at them for lying, but she can’t seem to stop them. They just plug right along on their lying little way.
And then the war comes to their village. A Jewish family hides in the boys’ home. Suddenly the less said to anybody the better. And then, just as suddenly, the family disappears. The two younger boys think that they have been taken away by the Germans, but Pierre begins to act moodily. Maman, too, has much on her mind. The two younger boys continue to frolic and fuss, but Pierre decides that he wants to stop lying.
“Why?” said Rene.
“Because it’s wrong,” he said.
“Well,” said Rene, “of course it is, but if nobody’s hurt, what’s the problem?”
“It is harder to tell the truth than to lie,” said Pierre slowly. “I like to do the thing that is harder.” [pg. 81]
The climax comes when, after the two younger boys have secretly befriended a German soldier, the soldier brings an injured Fat Marcel back to the house. After he leaves, Maman nearly breaks down. And then she says that she has something to show them. A secret door is opened and it is revealed that the Jewish family is still in the home, has been all summer long. The boys realize that while they were priding themselves on how secretly they had upheld their relationship with the German, they were simultaneously endangering not only their family but also the Jews. They also realize that while they thought themselves good liars, their talent is nothing compared to another person’s – their mother’s.
In the end, it is difficult to say whether the lying issue has been resolved. The boys have admitted it is wrong all along and seem shocked by the presence of the Jews in their home and what it means, but do they ever stop lying? We don’t know.
Madame Cauverian prides herself that she can see the future. She speaks sometimes about the behavior of ghosts and devils. The boys’ mother is Catholic and they pray once to Mary.
Rene and Fat Marcel tease Pierre about having a crush on a young girl. They also wonder if the girl’s father disappeared because he ran away with another woman.
Conclusion. Not my favorite WWII story, but one that could be used to teach the importance of truthfulness – and principled deception.
Review © 2014 Laura Verret