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.