Children from the Wars Returning
- John Wilson (Author)
And in the Morning. Kids Can Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jean Little (Author)
Brothers Far from Home: The World War I Diary of Eliza Bates, Uxbridge, Ontario, 1916. Scholastic (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jonathan F. Vance
The success of the Dear Canada series has brought the epistolary novel back into vogue, at least as far as children’s books are concerned. And, since the American literary critic Paul Fussell famously referred to the First World War as “Oh, what a literary war,” in that its participants were, more than in any other war, both infused with an appreciation for the written word and moved to write about their experiences, it seems only fitting that the epistolary format be used to bring the Great War to young readers.
John Wilson and Jean Little both cover roughly two years of the war: And In The Morning from the day of Britain’s declaration of war, in August 1914, to the first days of the July 1916 Somme offensive that decimated Britain’s New Army; and Brothers Far from Home from Christmas Day 1916 to the first peacetime Christmas two years later. Through it all, the two young writers, Jim Hay and Eliza Bates, undergo the kind of life-altering tragedies that struck millions of people around the world. Jim’s father is killed in action in the first month of the war, and he becomes an orphan soon after when his mother dies of a broken heart. His own tragic fate is played out in the aftermath of the First Day of the Somme, the single bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Eliza also watches as her comfortable existence in a manse in Uxbridge, Ontario, falls to pieces. One brother is killed at the front in bizarre circumstances, a shock that drives her father to a nervous breakdown, and the other returns from Europe horribly maimed. The neighbouring family is scarcely more fortunate, for their soldier son comes back from the war ruined in mind rather than body.
The secret to a successful epistolary novel is to capture and retain the voice of the writer. In this Little succeeds admirably, and one never doubts for an instant that the diary reveals the deepest thoughts and fears of a typical twelve-year-old girl. Eliza Bates uses her journal as any child might, to blow off steam over her ill-treatment by a sibling, to celebrate when things go right and grieve when things go wrong, to confide in when no one else understands, and to explore her own emotions. Through it all, the diction is utterly authentic. When Eliza complains of her sister’s airs or muses about babies (“I’ve seen some positively repulsive babies brought in to be baptized. They improve later, usually, but at first they slobber and look like little red monkeys. Bald and bawling.”), one never imagines that the journal is anything but the work of a young girl.
Wilson is less convincing with the voice of his protagonist. At the opening, Jim Hay is a fifteen-year-old Glaswegian, but he often doesn’t sound like one, even if we recognize his maturation though the fires of war. Wilson does a good job of having Hay parrot the conventional propaganda of 1914 (the insertion into the text of news articles acts as a nice foil in this regard), but Jim often sounds less like a teenager and more like an adult trying to sound like a teenager. Phrases like “The pungent odour of decay mixed with the ordinary smell of horses, such a common odour of home that its juxtaposition with death turned my stomach” just don’t ring true coming from a working-class Glasgow teenager, even one with literary inclinations. While Little never loses sight of the fact that, for a twelve-year-old girl, being brushed off by a big sister is more important than the fall of Liïge, Wilson tries too hard to make Jim’s words trace the movement of British society from naive idealism to realist disillusion.
But this very fact also gives And in the Morning a strong grounding in the history, for Wilson drew heavily on archival records and the writings of soldiers from the Highland Light Infantry to construct Jim Hay’s experiences. Jean Little, too, gives her novel a solid historical basis, the inspiration for Eliza’s doomed brother Hugo coming from Little’s own uncle, who was killed in action in 1918. She also provides postwar biographical details on her characters to heighten the verisimilitude. Both authors play on the literary inclinations of their characters by giving each of them an encounter with a great writer: Jim Hay meets the British war poet Isaac Rosenberg at the front (it is Rosenberg who encourages him to read more poetry), while Eliza has a brush with L.M. Montgomery, whose husband served a parish north of Toronto during the war.
The publication of World War I letters and diaries, either in book form or on the Internet (notable, for example, is the impressive collection assembled by the Canadian Letters and Images Project of Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, BC), has been something of a growth industry of late. Because many of them were written by young soldiers like Jim Hay, John Wilson faces (but doesn’t quite meet) the daunting challenge of trying to bring something fresh to the subject. However, very few of those accounts reveal the perceptions of the children like Eliza Bates who had to make sense of the war from afar. And, as Jean Little reveals so sensitively, they often interpreted the conflict in ways that might surprise us.
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MLA: Vance, Jonathan F. Children from the Wars Returning. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 180 - 181)
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