Elizabeth Honey, From Stella Street to Amsterdam, Allen & Unwin, September 2020, 432 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781865084541
You have to know the past to understand the present, astronomer Carl Sagan once said. And in this brand new adventure, twenty years after 45 + 47 Stella Street, Elizabeth Honey has created an intricate story that dips between past and present, rich with insights and life lessons. When young teen, Henni Octon accompanies her elderly Dutch neighbour, Willa, to Amsterdam, she uncovers a family secret dating back to World War II. While getting to know Willa’s family and making new friends, Henni must navigate change, distance and tales of an earlier life that often seems incomprehensible, ultimately deciding whether or not to disclose the secret.
Part detective novel, part travelogue/diary and part history lesson, this ambitious novel (pitched to ages 10-14) tackles some tough topics: war, cultural diversity, intergenerational trauma, prejudice, gender stereotypes and more. The story delves into complex issues without being didactic and, despite its length, is both engaging and accessible. At times, I found it difficult to reconcile the more sombre aspect of the story with its busy layout, featuring text messages, photos, Henni’s poetry and the author’s playful sketches. However, these stylistic elements, along with moments of heart and humour, offer some light relief from the more serious aspects of this poignant tale. Readers will learn a thing or two about Amsterdam, including the language, which is sprinkled throughout, and more importantly, about humanity.
A timely and universal story.
Reviewed by Maura Pierlot