It’s Alfie Summerfield’s fifth birthday when Stay Where You Are and Then Leave by John Boyne opens. By the end of this short, affecting middle grade novel, Alfie’s only nine, but in the intervening four years he’s been every bit as brave as his Dad, who’s gone off to fight for Britian in WWI. Alfie’s mom works a double shift at the hospital, so Alfie leaves school to earn money polishing shoes at King’s Cross Station. When his Dad’s letters stop, his mom tells him his Dad has been sent on a secret mission. Alfie’s convinced he’s dead. An encounter with a stranger while polishing his shoes gives Alfie a clue that his Dad may be a patient at a nearby hospital that treats soldiers suffering from shell shock. Determined to bring him home and restore his happy family, Alfie sets off to find him.
Boyne, the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, has written a spare, moving story about war as seen through the eyes of a young boy. There’s prejudice in Alfie’s working class neighborhood, but there’s family love and loyalty, too. Alfie’s attempt to make sense of the world around him as it descends into the ravaging affects of men away at war and mothers trying to cope is a story for all times. And nine-year-old Alfie is nothing short of heroic.