The following day Albert wheeled me into a little parc. He asked to be excused a few minutes. He said he wanted to buy some tabacco across the street. A tall man happened to walk by me and went on and returned and sat on one of those iron benches the French have in parcs. He was one of the tallest men I’ve ever seen, all bones, with a white face and a beard that was lopsided. I mean, it grew thicker on one side than the other. He had greenish eyes. He watched me with those greenish eyes. They made me uncomfortable. I wished Albert would hurry back.
“Bon jour,” he said in a voice soft as mucillage.
I said, “I don’t speak French.”
At that, his eyes opened wider. “Don’t you now?” he said, in English just as good as mine. “I’m surprised at that, my young friend. If I had a son as intelligent as you appear to be, I’d quickly teach him French and take him with me and show him a good time instead of foisting him off with a stupid hotel porter.”
It never occurred to me to ask him how he knew I was with a hotel porter.
Johnny Littlehorn,13, injured in an accident at his Wyoming ranch, is newly arrived in France. The war in Europe has just ended, but his father still works as a liason in Paris, so Johnny and his French-born mother are joining him. It’s a wretched business, as far as Johnny is concerned. Why, these French people don’t even know enough to learn a “proper language to speak — I mean, a language like the kind of language you and I and sensible folks speak.” In short order, Johnny’s injuries are seen to by an army specialist, and he is sent to the village of St. Charmant to live and recuperate with his Uncle Paul.
Strange things begin to happen, though, from Johnny’s earliest days in Paris. A sinister stranger talks with him, seeming to know far more about him than is possible. Monsieur Fischfasse introduces himself to Johnny by one name, yet his father seems well acquainted with him by an entirely different name. What’s more, this foreboding fellow seems to be following him to his uncle’s place.
What can he want? And who is the Nazi spy said to be lurking in the mountains near the town? And are they in cahoots?
Johnny is up to his eyeballs in espionage, danger, and the surprising joys and friendships he finds in this place where they speak such a confounded, nonsensical language! It’s a rip-roaring adventure, including a breathtaking flight in a glider…but I won’t give it away.
This is a Newbery Honor book from 1946, and one of our family favorites. One of the most unique novels, it introduces the reader to increasing amounts of French as the story develops. The plot device in which Johnny is challenged by his mother to write at least two full pages in French by the end of his stay, allows us to learn a bit of French vocabulary along with him. In our family, we read this book aloud, and since I can speak French, my kids learned to comprehend each new bit as we went. The story culminates with 3 pages entirely written in French — Johnny’s letter to his mother. It’s quite a triumph for readers/listeners to be able to comprehend the entire letter! For those with absolutely no knowledge of French, your pronunciation will be a definite challenge! but independent readers will likely learn to recognize the words as they go and comprehend the written French.
Nazi spy thriller, French language primer, and a story about bravery and one boy’s choice to not allow his circumstances to defeat him, this book truly packs in adventure, suspense, and humor. Great fun for a wide age range of listeners, or capable readers from mid-elementary and up who aren’t afraid of those French words.
It appears to be out of print…sad! There are some used copies for sale at this Amazon link: