Obituary: Anne Holm

Pierre Perrone
Wednesday 06 January 1999 00:02 GMT

ANNE HOLM is principally known as the author of I Am David, one of the most important children's books written since the Second World War.

Still selling around 30,000 copies each year and with total sales now over two million, it was a landmark in bringing to children's attention the existence of a world of political evil and the misery this causes. Some doubted the need for revealing such harsh truths at an early stage, but the thousands of children who read the book often sent letters of thanks to the author. Sometimes they wrote directly to the fictional David as well.

She was born Anne Lise Elfe in Jutland in 1922, and trained as a journalist before marrying her numismatist husband Johan Holm. She produced a volume of poetry at the age of 20, but waited another 20 years before writing I Am David in 1963. This won the first prize in Scandinavia for fiction for older children.

Appearing in America as North to Freedom, it was given its more arresting title I Am David by Holm's British publisher Methuen in 1965. It tells the haunting story of a 12-year-old boy who is helped to escape from a concentration camp in Eastern Europe by an otherwise hateful guard. Convinced this is a trap to kill him, David nevertheless sets off by way of Greece, Italy, Switzerland and Germany in order to get to Denmark, where his former captor had told him he would find ultimate safety.

Thumbing lifts and living by his wits, David has a number of adventures including saving an Italian child from a fire. Semi-adopted by the grateful family, he learns to smile for the first time. But after overhearing the mother complaining about his brooding personality and the way he never talks about the past, David sets out again, afraid he will be returned to the camp and to "them". After some massive coincidences and more opportune eavesdropping, he finally learns to trust others and to put some of his past behind him. The last page sees him reunited with the mother he could not remember but always wanted to find.

By this time David is a more allegorical than real figure, with his suffering symbolising the tragedy of all displaced children after the war. The constant sense of danger on his picaresque journey gives his story a sense of tense excitement that combines well with its message about compassion and care.

Along with Ian Serraillier's fine novel The Silver Sword (1956) also about a child wandering through post-war Europe, she opened up some pages of recent history then normally kept closed to children. Not a radical in her own beliefs - she described herself as a conservative for king and parliament - she was however convinced that children needed "real, valuable literature" as well as "harmless entertainment".

Other books included The Hostage (1990), about the kidnapping of a Danish prime-minister's son by a political opponent seeking to get Denmark out of Nato, and The Sky Grew Red (1992), which describes the firing of Copenhagen during the Napoleonic wars. But Holm was never a prolific writer. When asked to list her hobbies these included not just travelling, theatre, cooking, books, antiques and history but also the peace and quiet enjoyed with her son, two grandchildren and a succession of Yorkshire terriers, the favourite of them named Yorick.

An elegant, sharp-witted and charming companion, and for many years a close friend of Karen Blixen, she was not an obvious candidate for the writing of such a passionate story as I Am David. Yet she lived to see books written about her masterpiece. When translations from abroad were becoming increasingly rare in children's fiction, Anne Holm's achievement in spreading her humane message to such a huge, international young audience remains a proud one.

Nicholas Tucker

Anne Lise Elfe, writer: born Aal, Jutland 10 September 1922; married 1949 Johan Holm (died 1987; one son); died 27 December 1998.

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