TAMAR, A Novel of Espionage, Passion, & Betrayal

By Mal Peet

Review by Susan Miller, Teen Services Library Assistant

The subtitle clues us in from the outset that throughout all the mystery and drama of the resistance fighters, and all the heroism the main characters exhibit, at the core this story is about personal betrayal.

The story is narrated by a contemporary girl who grew up extremely attached to her grandfather, who has committed suicide. This was a man with whom she did puzzles & codes, and after whom she was named. The Tamar was a river and also the code name her grandfather was assigned as a very young resistance fighter in the war. In a riddle inside a riddle, she is left a box when he dies. In it lie the darkest secrets of his life, which she pieces together on a road trip down the Tamar River & through the adventures of his life, accompanied by her Dutch cousin.

Originally set in Holland in 1944, where 2 Englishmen have parachuted into Nazi occupied Holland to organize the Dutch Resistance, we travel through time as well as geography. One man assumed the identity of a doctor and lived in an insane asylum transmitting coded messages, the other on a farm with a woman he lived with in a prior trip & with whom he shared a deep love.

This is a complex and disturbing book, one with profound lessons—which is why it won the Carnegie. It examines the price of war to those who fight it & the generations who follow.

"I belong to a generation whose fathers were soldiers, sailors, or airmen during the Second World War," says Mal Peet. "Some of these men were willing to talk about their experiences, some were not. My own father wasn't. (Or perhaps I didn't want to listen.) A friend of mine had a father whose wartime experiences were actually secret. He worked underground for the British secret services in Nazi-occupied Holland. He still had his 'silks,' the sheets of code used for his radio transmissions. These scraps of fabric were my starting point for Tamar. It's a story about secrets, lies, false identities, coded messages. It's also, I hope, a plea for forgiveness.” Sins of the fathers must ultimately be forgiven! Especially now, when we seem to have forgotten the lessons of war, his message seems particularly relevant.