Jacob Portman grew up listening to the fantastic stories of his grandfather, Abraham. Abe was born in Poland but spent much of his childhood in a home for refugee children in Wales. He claimed that he'd had to leave Poland because "the monsters were after him." And "more fantastic still were his stories about life in the Welsh children's home. It was an enchanted place, he said, designed to keep kids safe from the monsters, on an island where the sun shined every day and nobody ever got sick or died. Everyone lived together in a house that was protected by a wise old bird--or so the story went" (page 9).
As a child, Jacob believed his grandfather's stories. But as he got older, his parents' explanation sounded far more reasonable: the stories "weren't lies, exactly, but exaggerated versions of the truth--because the story of Grandpa Portman's childhood wasn't a fairy story at all. It was a horror story. My grandfather was the only member of his family to escape Poland before the Second World War broke out. He was twelve years old when his parents sent him into the arms of strangers, putting their youngest son on a train to Britain with nothing more than a suitcase and the clothes on his back. It was a one-way ticket. He never saw his mother or father again, or his older brothers, his cousins, his aunts and uncles. Each one would be dead before his sixteenth birthday, killed by the monsters he had so narrowly escaped. But these weren't the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around--they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don't recognize them for what they are until it's too late.
"Like the monsters, the enchanted-island story was also a truth in disguise. Compared to the horrors of mainland Europe, the children's home that had taken in my grandfather must've seemed like a paradise, and so in his stories it had become one: a safe haven of endless summers and guardian angels and magical children, who couldn't really fly or turn invisible or lift boulders, of course. The peculiarity for which they'd been hunted was simply their Jewishness. They were orphans or war, washed up on that little island in a tide of blood. What made them amazing wasn't that they had miraculous powers; that they had escaped the ghettos and gas chambers was miraculous enough" (page 17).
This explanation from his parents kept Jacob from asking any questions until he was 16.... when his grandfather is killed under strange and traumatizing circumstances. As Jacob holds his dying grandfather in his arms, he is certain that he sees one of the horrifying monsters that his grandfather described during his childhood. And then there are his grandfather's mysterious last words:
"Go to the island. You'll be safe there. Promise me" (page 32).
"I thought I could protect you. I should've told you a long time ago...." (page 32).
"There's no time. Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man's grave. September third, 1940" (page 33).
"Emerson--the letter. Tell them what happened" (page 33).
After his grandfather dies, Jacob is certain that the trauma is making him crazy--a theory supported by his psychiatrist, Dr. Golan. But then he finds the mysterious letter that his grandfather was referring to, which leads him to Cairnholm, a remote island off the coast of Wales, in search of what remains of his grandfather's long-ago children's home. Nothing is what he expected, and he learns that there was far more to his grandfather--and to him--than met the eye.
Another facet of this book that makes it so fabulous is the photgraphs. It is illustrated by vintage photographs, which the author found through 10 different collectors. Many of the black and white photographs left me staring, thinking, "But that's not possible!" They add so much to the story, and their use makes the story incredibly unique.
I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for something new. It takes the realm of reality and twists it into one of those "loops" Abraham referred to, showing another reality existing alongside our own. Very creative, very well-written. I found a copy of this book in the teen section of my library, but I believe the YA designation is largely because of the ages of the characters. This story could easily be enjoyed even by those who don't venture into young adult literature otherwise. Both the story and the photographs are definitely worth checking out!