Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Edith Nesbit’s classic story of siblings and magic, The Five Children and It, was first published in 1905. In Five Children on the Western Front, British children’s author Kate Suanders gives us the Bastable children about nine years older and wiser and the Psammead (pronounced Sammy-ad) as irascible as ever, but not quite so magical. Maybe that’s because the world itself was more magical in 1905 than it became in 1914.

World War I has intruded upon the lives of the grown-up or nearly grown-up children, Cyril, Anthea, Jane and Robert, and even The Lamb (Hilary) and the new little Bastable sister, Edie, are living in a wartime Britain rather than the idyllic turn-of-the century British countryside in which the older children first encountered magic. The story covers the wartime years, 1914-1918. The Psammead has returned to see the children through the war—or maybe he’s come back because he can’t really control his magic or grant wishes anymore, and he just needs a place to live. He thinks he’s been “de-magicked and dumped” in the Bastables’ garden by an angry universe. At any rate, Edie, nine years old at the story’s inception, takes a liking to the grumpy and rather sleepy sand fairy, and occasionally even manages to be involved in some magical adventures on his behalf.

I thought this was a fascinating look at “what ever happened to the five children and It”, but I would have to try it out on a real child to know whether this is just a book for nostalgic adults and teens who were Nesbit fans or whether actual children would enjoy it, too. There’s a lot of kissing and war romance and war scenes, shown from a child’s (sometimes eavesdropping) perspective and totally appropriate for children, but the story is really about adults as much as it is children.

It’s also about repentance. The Psammead has a cruel and tyrannical past life, and part of his task during the years of the book’s tale is to repent. Repentance in this particular case means understanding that he’s done something bad and feeling a bit sorry. No reform or payment is required, but the Psammead has trouble with even a minimal amount of humility or apology. So, the children take turns laughing at his unrepentant cruelty and carelessness and trying to convince him that he is not the center of the universe. Again, I was interested in whether or not the old Psammead would ever be able to “go home”, reconciled to the universe, but I don’t know how many children would stay interested.

For fans of Edith Nesbit or Downton Abbey (for the history) or maybe World War I settings.

Edith Schaeffer, 1914-2013

Edith Schaeffer, wife of theologian and Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer, and an author and teacher in her own right, died today and went to be with the Lord.

I knew her through her books, some of which were and are my favorites. I’ve read and enjoyed the ones in boldface.

1969. L’Abri.
1971. The Hidden Art of Homemaking: Creative Ideas for Enriching Everyday Life.
1973. Everybody Can Know.
1978. Affliction.
1975. Christianity is Jewish.
1975. What is a Family?
1977. A Way of Seeing.
1981. The Tapestry: the life and times of Francis and Edith Schaeffer.
1983. Common Sense Christian Living.
1983. Lifelines: God’s Framework for Christian Living.
1986. Forever Music.
1988. With Love, Edith: the L’Abri family letters 1948-1960.
1989. Dear Family: the L’Abri family letters 1961-1986.
1992. The Life of Prayer.
1994. A Celebration of Marriage: Hopes and Realities.
1994. 10 Things Parents Must Teach Their Children (And Learn for Themselves)
1998. Mei Fuh: Memories from China.
2000. A Celebration of Children.

I need to look for the rest of these books.

“God does not promise to treat each of his children the same in this life. God does not say that each one of his children will have the same pattern of living or follow the same plan. God is a God of diversity. God can make trees—but among the trees are hundreds of kinds of trees. God can make apples trees, but among the apples on that tree no two look identically alike. God is able to make snowflakes, and make each snowflake differently. God has a different plan for each of his children—but it all fits together.” Everybody Can Know: Family Devotions from the Gospel of Luke by Francis and Edith Schaeffer

“Don’t be fearful about the journey ahead; don’t worry where you are going or how you are going to get there. If you believe in the first person of the Trinity, God the Father, also believe in the Second Person of the Trinity, the One who came as the Light of the World, not only to die for people, but to light the way… This one, Jesus Christ, is Himself the Light and will guide your footsteps along the way.” ~Edith Schaeffer

Tim Challies on the life and influence of Edith Schaeffer.
Frank Schaeffer: Good-bye, Mom.
Brenda at Coffee, Tea, Books and Me eulogizes Mrs. Schaeffer.

Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley

Charles Hamilton Sorley was a British soldier in the first part of World War I. He had been a student in Germany before the war and had some admiration for the German spirit and Kultur. He was killed in action at the battle of Loos on October 13, 1915. His father gathered and published Sorley’s collected letters after the war. I read excerpts from that collection in The Penguin Book of First World War Prose.

“Germany must be crushed for her wicked and selfish aspiration to be mistress of the world but the country that, when mistress of the world, failed to set her an example of unworldliness and renunciation should take to herself half the blame of the blood expended in the crushing.”

The country that failed is Britain, of course.

“I have had a conventional education: Oxford would have corked it. But this has freed the spirit, glory be. Give me The Odyssey, and I return the New Testament to store. Physically as well as spiritually, give me the road.”

“I shall march hotly to the firing line, by turns critic, actor, hero, coward, and soldier of fortune: perhaps even for a moment Christian, humble, with ‘Thy will be done’. Then shock, combustion, the emergence of one of these: death or life: and then return to the old rigamarole.”

The Germany Mr. Sorley writes about, confident in her moral and cultural superiority, sounds a lot like the United States in the twenty-first century. The German intent was to export the strength and courage and efficiency of the Germans (Prussians) to the rest of the benighted and deprived world. And if this mission must be done militarily, then so be it. Are we caught up in the same error? Or have we learned from the First and Second World War that cultures and mores, no matter how superior, can only be exported by persuasion and propaganda, never by force?

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian

A couple of weeks ago when we played Book Tag with the theme of Summer Setting, Summer Reading, Debbie at ExUrbanis recommended this novel, saying that is was “part mystery and part love story.” So I borrowed a copy from the library.

And it is part mystery and part love story with a bit of psychological thriller and a ghost thrown in for free. The setting is the summer of 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I in southern France, near Basque country. Our narrator is a middle-aged Basque doctor who is recalling, in 1938 on the eve of yet another war, the days of his youth before he went off to fight in the Great War.

Dr. Montjean is a faithful and trustworthy narrator, but he doesn’t really understand the events and people he chronicles. There are lots of twists and surprises here that I certainly didn’t see coming. And the dialogue and the descriptions were both quite well-written, enough so that I eschewed my usual bad habit of skimming over long narrative passages.

Trevanian, the author, lives in the French Basque mountains, so the setting should be true-to-life. The description of a traditional Basque festival, complete with dancing, drinking, fighting and semi-pagan ritual is worth the reading of all the events leading up to it. Then there’s the Freudian, early twentieth century atmosphere that makes this novel just the right medicine for a good summer read.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

“[S]he had forgotten that it is the first concern of love to safeguard the dignity of the beloved, so that neither God in his skies nor the boy peering through the hedge should find in all time one possibility for contempt . . .”

I’m not sure what that statement means, to guard someone else’s dignity before God and man(?), but it is interesting to think about, as is this little story by Rebecca West, her first novel, published just as the First World War was ending in 1918. In 1914, The Soldier, Captain Christopher Baldry, is a sort of a hero, returning from the war, but the book is really about the women that Captain Baldry left behind: his cousin Jenny, his wife, Kitty, and his first love, Margaret.

The Return of the Soldier is another amnesia story, but it has an atmosphere and a poignancy that some of the other stories in the genre lack. Chris Baldry comes back from the war having lost his memory of the past fifteen years. The story is narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin, who grew up with Chris and who lives in his house as a companion to his wife, Kitty.

There are lot of questions raised in the story and left to be answered by the reader:

Is Jenny a reliable narrator? Are the thoughts and motivations of the other characters really as Jenny describes them or are we being told a tale that is only true in part from Jenny’s perspective? And who is Jenny? Why is she there, and why is she so interested in telling this story? I tried to read the story carefully, but I was never sure about Jenny’s personality and motivations.

What kind of person is Chris? Was he really happy in his marriage and his home before the war? Would he want to return to the war and “do his duty”, or is his amnesia not only an illness but also a subconscious running away from the horrors of the battlefield?

Who really loves Chris Baldry, the soldier? I would say that the woman who sacrifices herself for him is the one who really loves him. Who is that? Well, you tell me after you’ve read the book.

I recommend that you read this one slowly and carefully, paying attention to the details of time, setting, characterization, and plot. I wonder if watching the 1982 movie version of this novel, starring Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Ian Holm, Glenda Jackson, and Ann-Margret, would help at all in answering any of the questions, at least from the perspective of the screenwriters, the director, and the actors who made the movie.

World War One for Children and Young Adults

I read three novels in the past couple of weeks for children and young adults that were set before, during, and after World War I. I’ll have to say that each of the books was odd in its own way: odd prose style in the first, an unexpected twist that I almost didn’t see coming in the second, and anomalous angels in the third.

Eyes Like Willy’s by Juanita Havill. A French brother and sister, Guy and Sarah Masson, and their Austrian friend Willy are separated by the war. The writing style in this one is the strange part. At least, it read oddly to me. The sentences are short and choppy, Hemingway-esque, with a lack of transitions and analogies that I found disconcerting. At the same time, the sparse prose made me pay attention to each detail, so I can’t say it was ineffective—just odd. Here’s an example, chosen at random:

“Their first guests of the summer were Willy and his father. Willy had grown much taller. He was almost as tall as Guy, and thinner. He had a thin black mustache and looked older than seventeen. Seeing Wily’s mustache, Guy decided that he would grow one this summer.”

If I were writing the story, I would probably have combined some of those sentences into one more complicated sentence. But I’m not at all sure that my inclination to complication would be the better choice for this story. The book is short, 135 pages, but it tells a nuanced story of friendship over the course of several years and the effects of war on the relationships of three young people as they grow into adulthood during World War I.

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. Mr. Morpurgo also wrote War Horse, the book that formed the source material for the movie of the same name from last year. Both Private Peaceful and War Horse are set during World War I, and I plan to pick up the latter book from the library this afternoon. I haven’t seen the movie or read the book yet.

Private Peaceful focuses on the plight of British soldiers who were summarily tried, condemned and executed on the battlefield for cowardice or desertion during World War 1. Mr. Morpurgo gives some information in his afterword that I did not know about this practice:

“That a shameful injustice had been done to these unfortunate men seemed to me beyond doubt. Their judges called them ‘worthless.’ Their trials, or court martials, were brief, under twenty minutes in some cases. Twenty minutes for a man’s life. Often they had no one to speak for them and no witnesses were called in their defense. . . . The youngest soldier to be executed was just seventeen.

Successive British governments have since refused to acknowledge the injustice suffered by these men, and have refused to grant posthumous pardons—which would of course be a great consolation to surviving relatives. The New Zealand government have pardoned their executed soldiers; it can be done. The Australians and the Americans, to their credit, never allowed their soldiers to be executed in the first place.”

I thought the novel itself, the story of Charlie and Tommo Peaceful, brothers who went to war together, was well-written and absorbing. Mr. Morpurgo kept me guessing until the end, and one of the minor characters, Big Joe, was so well-drawn that I wanted him to have his own book. (Big Joe is the Peaceful brothers’ older sibling who is mentally challenged.)

I recommend Private Peaceful if you liked War Horse or if you just want to read a well-told tale of the difficulties of being a soldier on the front lines during World War I.

A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse. In 1918 Boston, Hannah Gold must face her own wartime suffering as the influenza epidemic sweeps through her family and town. While the war forms a backdrop for this novel, it’s really the story of a Jewish family and the influenza epidemic of 1918. Fourteen year old Hannah is rather improbably sent out into the streets of Boston by her erstwhile guardian to keep her from catching the flu from her family members, and she ends up, again improbably, in Vermont. Hannah also sees angels.

It’s a good introduction to the time period and the prejudices of that era and the hardships of the Spanish flu epidemic. And the reviews at Amazon are for the most part highly positive. I just didn’t ever believe in Hannah or her cold impersonal guardian Vashti or her plight. And I thought the author cheated on the ending by making us believe one (tragic) thing and then pulling off a “no, not really” surprise. And the angels seemed out of place and sort of extraneous.

So, my favorite World War I children’s and YA novels so far are: Winnie’s War by Jennie Moss, The Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Laurence, and Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. What about you?

Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence

Yep. It’s all twentieth century history all the time here at Semicolon this year—except when it isn’t. Actually, I have so many irons in the fire with Texas Tuesday, and Wednesday’s Word of the Week and the Saturday Review and other stuff that just catches my interest that I think I should call myself an ADD reader—Attention Distracted Disorderly reader. Yes, there is method in my madness, but it’s sometimes buried deep in the chaos of what passes for an orderly mind.

And all of that verbiage was my introduction to Mr. Lawrence’s Lord of the Nutcracker Men, a young adult or middle grade fiction book set in the first year of World War One, 1914, in England. Ten year old Johnny has a set of “thirty soldiers carved from wood, dressed in helmets and tall black boots. They carried rifles tipped with silver bayonets. They had enormous mouths full of grinning teeth that sparkled in the sun.” Johnny’s dad made the soldiers and gave them to Johnny for his ninth birthday.

Now the world is at war, and Johnny’s toy soldiers look just like the German Kaiser’s army that is now storming through Belgium. And Johnny asks his father, “Can you make me some Frenchmen? Can you make me some Tommies” (British soldiers)? So Johnny’s dad makes him a little French soldier with a blue coat.

Soon, Johnny’s father volunteers for the army. He’s sent to the front, to the trenches, but he promises to be back by Christmas. And Johnny is sent to the country to live with his aunt since rumors of German Zeppelins flying over London are frightening his mother into sending him away for his own safety, “just until Christmas, of course. Just until the war is over.”

Most of the story takes place with Johnny in the country, playing with his toy soldiers,including the new ones that his dad sends him from the war front. And, then, there are letters in which dad tells Johnny what is happening in the war and what the front is like for him. The letters are quite graphic in describing the violence and the degradation that the soldiers endure, and although they’re realistic as far as I can tell, I think it’s highly unlikely that a father would send a ten year old letters that described war in such explicit terms. Nor do I believe Aunt Ivy would read them aloud without editing if dad did write them.

But this breakdown in the logic of the narrative can be ignored, especially if you decide that the book is a better fit for young adult readers rather than ten and eleven year olds. Johnny at first glorifies war and the military with his wooden toys and his imagination, but as his father’s letters become darker and full of gloom and discouragement, Johnny becomes fearful. He begins to imagine that the battles he stages with his toy armies are determining the outcome of real battles at the front and even the fate of his father, personified by one of the carved soldiers.

It’s a good story, and it ends on a hopeful note with a letter from Johnny’s dad at Christmas about the informal and undeclared Christmas truce of 1914, in which many soldiers on both sides of the war stopped fighting to celebrate Christmas together in no-man’s land.

Reading about World War I

Nonfiction for children and young adults:
Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy. World War I and the Christmas Eve, 1914 spontaneous cease-fire. Reviewed by Betsy at Fuse #8.
The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman. Reviewed at Bookish Blather.
Primary Source Accounts of World War I by Glenn Sherer and Marty Fletcher. From a series on various American wars published by (Enslow Publishers).
Remember the Lusitania! by Diana Preston. A children’s/young adult version of the adult nonfiction title by the same author. The books includes lots of personal anecdotes about individuals who survived the sinking of the Lusitania and stories of some of the people who did not. It’s a solid, brief (89 pages with pictures) introduction to the subject, but it felt a little rushed. I hardly had time to get to know the characters that the author spotlighted before the entire episode was over and done with.
Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I by Ann Bausum. Reviewed by Betsy at Fuse #8.

Adult nonfiction:
The Proud Tower: A portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman. I’m working on this one–about halfway through. The author spent about 200 pages on the Dreyfus affair in France, and if nothing else, I feel as if I know a lot more about French modern history than I did before. Reviewed at Resolute Reader.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. I started this book once but didn’t finish. I think after I get through with The Proud Tower, I’ll be ready for guns. The Guns of August won Ms. Tuchman a Pulitzer Prize for history. Reviewed at Resolute Reader.
The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara Tuchman.
Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie. I read this classic biography/tragedy back when I was in high school or college, and I remember it as fascinating. It’s since been updated with new discoveries made about the bodies that were found and from information found in Soviet archives.
Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea by Robert K. Massie.
Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie.
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild. Semicolon review here.
The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson. Semicolon review here.
Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston.

Children’s and young adult fiction:
Fly, Cher Ami, Fly!: The Pigeon Who Saved the Lost Battalion by Robert Burleigh. Based on a true story about carrier pigeons used by the U.S. Army during World War I.
War Game: Village Green to No-Man’s Land by Michael Foreman. A longer picture book story of a soccer game during the Christmas truce of 1914.
Winnie’s War by Jenny Moss. Semicolon review here.
The Best Bad Luck I Ever had by Kristin Levine. Semicolon review here.
When Christmas Comes Again: The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer, New York City to the Western Front, 1917 by Beth Seidel Levine.
Rilla of Ingleside by L.M Montgomery.
Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace. Betsy travels through Europe instead of going immediately to college after high school, and she sees the arms build-up and the beginning of World War I. Reviewed at Library Hospital.
Betsy’s Wedding by Maud Hart Lovelace. Reviewed at Reading on a Rainy Day.
Kipling’s Choice by Geert Spillebeen. I read this book a couple of years ago, but never got around to reviewing it. It’s a fictional account of the death of John Kipling, son of Rudyard Kipling, near Loos, France in 1915. Here it is reviewed at Chasing Ray.
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. Joey, the farm horse, is sold to the army and sent to the Western front. Reviewed at Another Cookie Crumbles.
Without Warning: Ellen’s Story, 1914-1918 by Dennis Hamley. Ellen Wilkins becomes a nurse to follow her brother to war.
A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse. In 1918 Boston, Hannah Gold must face her own wartime suffering as the influenza epidemic sweeps through her family and town.
Eyes Like Willy’s by Juanita Havill. A French brother and sister, Guy and Sarah Masson, and their Austrian friend Willy are separated by the war.
After the Dancing Days by Margaret Rostkowski. We read this YA novel for my English/History class at homeschool co-op last year. Annie is a thirteen year old girl living in a small town in Kansas at the end of World War I. As she begins to visit the returning soldiers at the veterans’ hospital where her father works as a doctor, Annie is at first repulsed and frightened by the severely injured men. However, she comes to be friends with them, one in particular, even though her mother is opposed to Annie’s hospital visits and wants her to forget about the war and its consequences.
My Brother’s Shadow by Monica Schroder. This YA novel is brand new, published in September by Farrar Straus Giroux, and I got an ARC from the publisher. It’s about a German boy, Moritz, towards the end of the war in 1918 and how he comes to see the war and its results differently as he grows up in its aftermath. Moritz’s brother comes home severely wounded from the front, and Moritz must choose between his loyalty to his brother and his mother’s new socialist way of seeing politics and the world. I thought the story was good, but the fact that entire books is written in present tense distracted me. I suppose the intent is a “you are there” feel, but I would have preferred the distance and objectivity of past tense.

Adult fiction:
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.
To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World War by Jeff Shaara.
No Graves As Yet by Anne Perry is the first in her World War I mystery/suspense series. I don’t like her writing in these books as much as I did the Victorian Charlotte Pitt mysteries, but if you’re interested in the time period, they’re worth a try.

Of course, there are many, many more books about and set during World War I, but these are the ones with which I have some familiarity.

1914: The Arts and Entertainment

'Charlie Chaplin' photo (c) 2007, Fr. Dougal McGuire - license:'Mary Pickford' photo (c) 2008, bunky's pickle - license: comedian Charlie Chaplin and Canadian Mary Pickford are the stars of Hollywood’s silent pictures. Charlie Chaplin makes his first appearance as The Tramp in 1914’s Kid Auto Races at Venice.

In December 1914, cartoonist Johnny Gruelle paints a face on his daughter’s faceless rag doll and invents the Raggedy Ann doll. You can read Raggedy Ann Stories by Johnny Gruelle here at Project Gutenberg.