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?