Cover: Andersen Press Ltd., London

Reading guide for Fly Away Home

by Christine Nöstlinger

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate 2003

Written by Ulf Boëthius

About the author

Christine Nöstlinger (born in 1936) grew up in Vienna. She originally intended to be an artist and has also illustrated some of her own books.

She made her debut as a children’s author at the age of 34 with Fiery Frederica (1975) (original title: Die feuerrote Fredrike). Since then she has written over a hundred books for children of all ages. More than fifty of them have been translated into Swedish and a few into English. Besides her prolific work as an author, she has also worked as a journalist.

Her books can be divided into three main groups. The first is fantasy tales, books in which an ordinary everyday reality is turned upside down and we suddenly land in the world of the supernatural. Books in this category exude an irreverent humour in the spirit of Pippi Longstocking. Among them is her first book Fiery Frederica (illustrated by Nöstlinger herself), whose bullied heroine not only can make her Pippi-like red hair catch fire but also uses it to fly. Here in her very first book, we see Nöstlinger’s special mixture of humour, fantasy and social engagement. The masterpiece in this category is The Factory-Made Boy (original title: Konrad oder das Kind aus der Konservenbüchse, 1975), a hysterically funny story about a Bohemian woman who gets a parcel in the post that turns out to contain an extremely well brought-up seven year-old boy. The book plays not only with the way children are brought up but also with the standardised uniformity of industrial society. Another very funny book is the picture book Das Leben der Tomanis (1976), where not only the well brought-up children but also the parents, to the horror of the neighbours, turn into wild Tomanis who sing, jump and turn somersaults.

The second major category is realistic depictions of everyday life. As in the more fantastical tales, it is the child in the modern family, with overworked and often arguing or single parents, who takes centre stage. But here the tone is serious and the humour toned down. Ilse Janda, 14 (1974) is about a child of divorce who runs away from home to avoid the boxes on the ear from her unsympathetic mother. Stundenplan (1975) is similar in tone, depicting in detail three days in the life of fourteen year-old Anika. Here too pointed criticism is directed towards adults and their lack of love and understanding.

A third and very special group comprises two books which are nostalgic in nature: Fly Away Home (2009) (original title: Maikäfer, flieg!, 1973) and its sequel Zwei Wochen im Mai (1981). Both are autobiographical. The first describes the experiences of eight year-old Christel in Vienna in the last months of the Second World War, while the other is about how the poor watchmaker family try to find their feet amid the ruins. Both these books represent the pinnacle of Nöstlinger’s writing.

In recent decades Nöstlinger has mainly concentrated on books for younger children. Most of these have been published in two long series, one about a boy, Franz (begun in 1984) and one about a girl, Mini (from 1992). In these books too, we see Nöstlinger’s unique voice: humorous, unsentimental, low-key and involved.

About the book

Fly Away Home can be described as a memoir about the Second World War. The main character, eight year-old Christel, was born in the same year as Christine Nöstlinger and like her, her father is a watchmaker. The foreword also suggests that the book reflects the author’s own experiences.

The action takes place in Vienna in spring 1945. The city is suffering constant bombings and one day the house where Christel and her family live is hit. They take refuge in a large house in the suburbs, whose owner has fled. There they tensely await the arrival of the Russians. Christel’s father served as a soldier in Russia under the German campaign and risks being treated as an enemy. However, he also has reason to fear the German SS troops who still remain – he has deserted from the hospital in Vienna where he was being treated for war injuries.

And then the Russians come – at the last minute Christel’s mother tries to burn her father’s uniform. But the Russians turn out to be quite friendly. Christel’s father is treated with a certain amount of suspicion but is accepted. The Russians settle in the house and the family do fairly well; the Russians are generous and the cellar is also packed with a large stock of preserves that the children stole from a neighbouring house.

One important episode is the appearance of the Russian cook Cohn with an oven and an iron pot. Cohn is one of the key figures in the book. He is small, ugly and bald – but he has a heart of gold and is characterised by the constantly repeated phrase: “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter at all, madam!” Christel becomes friends with the kind Cohn and often comes to see him in his kitchen. However, relations with the Russians are not without their problems.

The book is written in the first person – the story is told by Christel. We hear her low-key, matter-of-fact voice in the very first sentences: “I was eight. I lived in Hernals. Hernals is a district in Vienna.” There is no emotion and no heroism, but sometimes a dry humour shines through.

The narrator’s precise language goes hand in hand with a sharp eye for the little details of everyday life. At the same time, the perspective is narrowly focused on what is going on in Christel’s immediate vicinity. The fact that her father is a watchmaker is something we don’t find out until after about a hundred pages.

The ability to highlight characteristic details is also borne out in the author’s depiction of people. The description of the Russian cook is unforgettable. The best portrait, however, is that of Christel herself. She has never experienced anything other than war – and does not long for everything to be normal again at all. She likes living with the Russians in the house in the suburbs. She knows that the Nazis gas Jews, but does not make a big deal out of it. War is like that. Christel is rebellious, stubborn and clear-headed. She is also imaginative and makes up stories and sometimes tells lies in a way reminiscent of Pippi Longstocking.

In the depiction of this eight year-old child of war there is not an ounce of sentimentality. When her father risks his life to save Christel after she has gone away with Cohn to his grandmother and grandfather, his daughter does not comment on this with a single word. Nevertheless, not merely this episode but the entire book exudes a powerful love for her father. Fly Away Home is a book in which the strongest emotions are constantly between the lines.

Things to think about and talk about

Fly Away Home is a book about the Second World War, which brings up a number of interesting questions for discussion:

What are we told about the war?

What is the book’s attitude to the war and the warring parties?

How does it view Nazism? How does it view the German soldiers – and the Russians?

In what way are people’s morals (or behaviour) affected by the war?

The book can also be compared with other young adult books about the Second World War, such as Vibeke Olsson’s Ulrike och kriget (1975) and Waltraut Pettersson’s Tid att leva (1978). Both these depict the war from a German perspective. It can also be compared with Inger Brattström’s Före mörkläggningen (1966) and Behåll din bit (1967), two books about how the war was experienced in Sweden. Here it is interesting to think about similarities and differences.

You can also look at the way the story is told. The way characters are described is a good place to start. You can also discuss the narrative technique. The following questions are relevant here:

Christel is sometimes disobedient and rebellious. Give examples!

She also makes up stories and uses her imagination. Try to find examples of this too.

How has the war affected Christel?

Have the people around her been affected by it? Give examples.

What image does the narrator give of her father – and what is the relationship between him and Christel like?

What image do we get of the mother – and what is Christel’s relationship with her like?

Describe Christel’s grandmother and grandfather. What role do they play for Christel?

What is Cohn like? Describe him!

How are the other Russians depicted? Can you give some examples?

What picture do we get of Vienna? Can you find examples of descriptions of nature?

Give some examples of the narrator’s fine eye for detail. These can be found in the depiction of people and of the setting.

The narrator is Christel – but also the author, twenty-five years later. Are there any places where the author is particularly noticeable?

How is the book’s unsentimental and factually observant tone created? What narrative techniques help to do that?

Can you find any metaphors, imagery or similes?

There are humorous episodes in the book too. Can you give some examples

Further reading

Harriette Söderblom gives an excellent presentation of Christine Nöstlinger in Författare och illustratörer för barn och ungdom, del 6, (Lund: Bibliotekstjänst 2000). It is a few years old but contains a list of works and references for further reading (in Swedish).

For those who want to explore further (and read German) there is Sabine Fuch’s book Christine Nöstlinger: Werkmonographie (Vienna: Dachs 2001).

This Reading Guide was written by Ulf Boëthius, member of the jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It was first published in Swedish in January 2012.

Further reading about Christine Nöstlinger