Tag Archives: WWI

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave

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No one said which Christmas“.

Recommended to me by the wonderful ravenandbeez, this book will hit you right where you live. (Thanks for breaking my heart, ladies. Sheesh.)

The day Alfie Summerfield turned 5, the First World War broke out. Alfie’s dad Georgie promised him that he wouldn’t join up, but broke the promise the next day, leaving Alfie and his mum on their own.

Now Alfie is 9 and hasn’t heard from his dad for more than two years. His mum says Georgie is away on a special mission for the government, but Alfie knows it can’t be true. He knows something has happened, he just doesn’t know what. He goes to school two days a week because those are the days that have the subjects he enjoys. The rest of the week, he shines shoes for pennies at King’s Cross Station and slips the money into his mum’s purse at the end of the day, to help her out and do his share. And it is there that he happens upon some information that leads him to the truth about his dad.

Which is that he is hospitalized for PTSD (shell shock, 100 years ago). In WWI doctors, nurses and medical professionals were trying to deal with and treat a condition that had no physical symptoms, all the while battling the public and government perception that the men were merely suffering from cowardice. Georgie is one of those men.

Holy. Crap. Alfie!  What a wonderful narrator for the story. Intelligent and funny and straight forward. Author John Boyne perfectly captures the innocence and bluntness of youth in the boy. Alfie sees the world his own way, and everything is black and white. There are no overtones of adult logic or greyscale, just what Alfie sees and how he perceives it, and it is SPECTACULAR.

Georgie and Margie and Joe and Mr. Janacek and Kalena and Granny Summerfield are so true to life. Margie holds a job for the first time, doing her bit for the war effort while trying to keep a roof over their heads. Joe, the conscientious objector and Georgie’s lifelong friend, who holds onto his beliefs in the face of those who call him coward and would force him to kill. Mr. Janacek is persecuted for his birthplace while Kalena dreams of being Prime Minister one day. And Granny is the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip Brit who is fiercely loyal to her own. And all are seen through Alfie’s eyes, with his perception of each. They are perfect.

Wartime London is grey and suspicious and close-knit. Families and neighbourhoods close ranks and protect one another, but are quick to turn when someone doesn’t conform.

This book is a true historical novel. Boyne does not shy away from the horror and terror and hardship of war, he just sees it through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy, doing a masterful job of portraying the culture and societal norms of the time.

It makes it no less painful to see a man break even though his son doesn’t quite understand what is broken. To tackle a topic such as this in a middle-grade novel might seem too much, but Boyne handles it gently and in terms a young reader can grasp. And while it may seem like something we don’t want our children to face, with terror and war raging around the globe many already are.

Be prepared for a punch in the heart.

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave was published September 26th, 2013 by Doubleday Childrens.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds

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If ever I wanted a book to go on and on, this is the one. What an original, enchanting, heart-breaking, haunting (no pun intended), story.

In October 1918, 16 year old Mary Shelley (yes, named after the author) Black flees to San Diego and her Aunt Eva on the heels of her father’s arrest for treason back in Oregon. She arrives hoping to hear news of Stephen, first a childhood friend, and then her first true love. He joined the war effort just shy of graduating school, and letters from him are sporadic.

Stephen’s older brother Julius is a Spiritualist, one who claims he can see and capture the spirit world with his camera. Julius preys on the desperate, who have lost so many loved ones to the war overseas and the deadly Spanish influenza. Unknowingly and unwillingly, Mary becomes his muse, helping to attract his bereaved customers with a doctored image.

But Mary’s scepticism of the spirit world takes a beating when she learns Stephen has been lost, and she herself narrowly escapes death, forever changed by the experience. She begins to feel a presence, an overwhelming knowledge that the young man’s essence is near and in agony, and her scientific curiosity gets the better of her as she searches for a way to help Stephen rest in peace.

Author Cat Winters has me caring about her characters from page one. Mary Shelley is a lost girl, trying to deal with the father she loves being arrested, trying to understand why someone doing right can be accused of wrong, trying to handle the enormity of loss brought on by world conflict. Strong and intelligent, she uses a scientific approach to solve her problems, is a feminist raised to see value in the human being, not the gender. “Why can’t a girl be smart without it being explained away as a rare supernatural phenomenon?”

Stephen is as gentle and caring as his brother is vindictive and selfish. His curious mind and nature are drawn to Mary Shelley’s strength and drive, and although we see little of him whole in the novel, Winters draws a complete picture of him. Aunt Eva is a great complex individual – while she is breaking down barriers, proud of her work in the shipyards building battleships while the men are overseas, she also is a product of her time, widowed young and worried that she won’t find a man at her advanced age of 26.

The plot is engaging from the first page. The initial few chapters do a great job of setting the stage, and by the second half I was fully immersed. As Mary’s world unravels, the action is non-stop and I did an extra 15 minutes on the treadmill because I couldn’t stop reading (my thighs thank Cat Winters).

Mary, as a budding scientist, struggles against stereotypes in a man’s world. Winters manages to weave in a few lessons of the struggle for women’s emancipation without it taking over the story. Aunt Eva’s work in the shipyard illustrates in a few words the shifting and changing expectations of women, not only by men but also by the women themselves.

Ugliness and death are everywhere. There is only fear and mistrust where there was life and curiosity before. Everyone wears gauze masks to protect and mask themselves, and a culture of fear evolves, fed by the snake oil salesman and spiritualists.

The search for equality, the hunt for solace, the need for peace, the desire for answers to how and why; Winters manages to explore so many aspects of human nature, without forcing the story or spoon-feeding the reader. Her style is completely captivating. Her writing evokes images of the horror in the trenches, the uncertainty of life in a flu-ridden city, and the beginning of hope.

This is a lovely, multi-layered story, well-researched about a horrific time in world history. It is a snapshot of a time of fatigue, when hope was nearly gone. Along with the gorgeous sepia cover are archival photographs from the period scattered throughout the novel, adding to the realism of the story. It is easily one of my new favourites.

Appropriate for any age, with the acknowledgment that there is description of war wounds and influenza deaths.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds was published April 2nd 2013 by Amulet Books.

Five Children on the Western Front

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What a lovely, wonderful, delightful, heartbreaking novel. Sequel to E. Nesbit’s classic Five Children and It, first published in 1904 and never out of print in the 110 years since, Five Children on the Western Front contains all the wit and charm of the first, while moving the story along to its heart-wrenching conclusion.

The Five have become Six, and The Great War has started. Cyril joined the Army originally to go to India, but will now go to France to fight. Anthea is at art college, Robert is a Cambridge scholar and Jane is at high school, dreaming of going to the Medical College for Women. The Lamb is no longer the baby the family; at 11 years old, he has been joined by a little sister, Edith. The Lamb and Edie have grown up listening to stories of the millennia-old sand fairy, the Psammead (sammy-ad), never sure what was truth and what was fiction.

Until he suddenly reappears. But he has changed, as they have. The Psammead is here for a reason, a reason that remains unclear as the war rages on and the years pass. But hints of his magic lead slowly to a purpose and a gift. 

The Lamb and Edie become the Psammead’s constant companions over the war years; his unpredictable magic takes them on ghostly adventures to the front, helping them gain an understanding of the blight that has settled across their world.

You do NOT have to read Five Children and It first to read or understand this book.  In fact, I read it years and years ago, had totally forgotten until I picked this one up, and realized the story felt familiar. Author Kate Saunders’ prologue quickly gives a background to bring the reader up to speed, then jumps feet first into this delightful sequel.

The characters are beautiful. The changes the family goes through during the war years are relatable and believable. Cyril, young and eager for battle, becomes tired and worn, no longer optimistic for the end. Robert learns that he is capable of much more than study. Anthea finds that she can handle pain and suffering if it means she is contributing to the effort, and Jane embraces the new society that the war brings.

The Psammead is gruff, rude, selfish, and yet capable of generosity and love. His millennia of existence has given him very specific views on the world; while some opinions are ancient and violent and out of touch with reality, he has a clear understanding of humanity that many humans themselves lack. “You humans are always going on about peace – but if you liked it that much, you’d have more of it.”

England in wartime, with a stiff upper lip to cover the agony of the loss of a generation of young men, the thick mud and horror of the trenches, and the overall optimism and joy of young children that embrace the rising of the sun as the start of a new adventure are depicted true to the time in history.

Saunders keeps the language and writing style incredibly close to that of Nesbit.  It is, indeed, the writing of a specific time, yet she manages to effortlessly continue the story while modernizing the feel.

There is some description of the horrors of wartime, of injuries and death, but as needed to move the narrative along.  Any age can read this novel, but I feel like it might appeal to the older YA demographic, due to the time period, the language and the lessons in the story.

Five Children on the Western Front is published by Faber & Faber.