Putting it all out there, I actually really struggled with this book in the beginning. It’s slow-moving, not particularly character-driven, and there’s something about the narrative style that just made me feel sort off somehow. One hundred pages in, I was toying with DNFing, not because it’s bad—it’s not—but because I wasn’t engaged. Then I realized I was almost halfway through and decided to push on through to the other side. And you know what? I’m glad that I did. The second half of the book moves a bit faster, because Alfie’s older and actually doing things.
Stay Where You Are and Then Leave starts on Alfie’s fifth birthday, which also happens to be the day that WWI begins. Needless to say, there have been better birthdays. Alfie’s dad enlists on that first day, overwhelmed with patriotism and a need to “do his bit.” The story pretty much just covers Alfie being five and then jumps to age nine, during which time Alfie opens up a shoeshine stand in the train station to help his mom earn money and learns about the secret of what happened to his dad.
Part of what didn’t work for me also made Stay Where You Are and Then Leave really special. Alfie’s the main character in that he’s in every scene, but it’s omniscient narration and the book is more about what happens around Alfie than about him. Like, the bulk of the scenes hardly involve Alfie at all; he’s overhearing conversations or witnessing something or listening to someone talk while he shines their shoes. Usually, a middle grade book is about a personal journey of growing up, but Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is more atmospheric, capturing a picture of the war’s impact on one little boy.
Through Alfie’s convenient location at the train station, Boyne is able to acquaint the reader with a lot of experiences through a young kid. As he shines their shoes, men unload their stories, their troubles. Alfie also witnesses numerous disturbances in the neighborhood, like the rough treatment of Joe Patience, a conscientious objector and the Janá?eks, of Hungarian origin. In fact, these story lines were perhaps most compelling to me, since they’re covering bits of WWI history I didn’t really know about. The way women would give any men who looked like they should be at war feathers to shame them? Wow.
Then there’s the Janá?eks. Kalena is a girl and his best friend. Her father runs a shop. When the war breaks out, they’re shipped off by the government under suspicion as spies, even though they’re not German. Kalena was even born in the US, but they’re apparently not to be trusted. I knew that stuff like that happened in WWII, but I had no idea there was that level of anti-German and -Hungarian sentiment during the first World War.
What Left Me Wanting More:
Boyne ultimately focuses on both the effects of the outbreak of the war and the end of it as well. He puts a focus on the fact that, though a number of men do make it back alive, and maybe even uninjured physically, that doesn’t mean they’re well. The traumas of war are myriad, and Boyne conveys this well, without actually diving into anything gruesome or violent. So, basically, I think Boyne does something very cool, but the style sort of lessened my personal enjoyment at the same time.
The Final Verdict:
Ultimately, I’m glad that I read Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, though it got off to a slow start. Boyne looks at WWI through a very unique lens, and if that is something that interests you, then it’s well worth checking out.