War in Children's Literature
War in Children's LiteratureINTRODUCTION
OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
WORLD WARS I AND II IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE
OTHER PRESENTATIONS OF WAR IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE
The depiction of war in juvenile and young adult literature.
War is among a number of morally complex subjects that parents, teachers, and other stakeholders have frequently debated whether or not they are appropriate as the basis for works of children's literature. Understandably, the depiction of war in children's texts is potentially problematic for several reasons, including the possibility of glorifying violence, reflecting human cruelty, and presenting disturbing imagery to readers unprepared for such material. However, while such issues emphasize the potential for negative repercussions for young readers, many subscribe to the belief that early exposure to the grimness of war may, in fact, both indoctrinate children to the difficulties of conflict and direct them towards more peaceful solutions. While war is primarily seen as falling into the domain of adult concerns, Jennifer Armstrong has pointed to recent surveys that show, according to studies by the United Nations, that "more children are hurt and killed in today's wars than are soldiers." In contemporary society, violence has widely saturated many media formats—including movies, video games, and comic books—and such depictions usually focus on titillation or entertainment, rather than presenting the realities of conflict and war. Scholars such as Kem Knapp Sawyer have advocated for accurate, albeit difficult, depictions of war in works of children's literature, in part, to counterbalance such dangerous oversimplifications of war in popular culture and the mass media. Sawyer has argued that, "many recent children's books are challenging the notion of warriors as hero while redefining the word courage. Today's authors are fighting stereotypes and adding new dimensions to an old subject. These stories are often told from a child's perspective, but not of a boy who dreams of following his father into battle." Jennifer Armstrong has concurred with this sentiment, maintaining that, "if we don't encounter war in the safe way, by experiencing it through literature and art, how will we be moved to avoid the real thing? Reading about was doesn't imply an endorsement of it: it's a way of acknowledging part of the human experience that has been with us since the days of the Trojan War and long before. If you really want to teach young readers about peace, give them books about war."
Even beyond such idealistic goals, the use of conflict in literature has ancient roots, which arise from its potential as a potent plot device that enables writers to examine issues of human nature, using war both for its literal implications as well as a metaphor. Caroline C. Hunt has asserted that, "Whether it simplifies moral choices or suggests all kinds of possibilities for one's identity, whether it forces a sort of early hothouse maturity in sex roles or work roles, or whether it simply removes the adolescent to a new and challenging locale, the war we see in young adult novels serves as an ideal metaphor for stress, turmoil, and change." One such young adult text that utilizes war as a metaphor is Bette Greene's The Summer of My German Soldier (1973), which charts the relationship between Anton, a German P.O.W. who escapes a prison camp in Arkansas during World War II, and a young girl, Patty, who secretly houses the escapee in an attic above her garage. The dichotomy between Patty's Jewish heritage and the German soldier's symbolic representation of the anti-Jewish state of Nazi Germany offers Greene a chance to explore issues of tolerance, love, and the origins of violence against the backdrop of war, even when that conflict is taking place on another continent. In doing so, Rosalie Benoit Weaver has noted that Greene "effectively and creatively transfers the hatred and anti-Semitism of World War II Europe to the small, Southern town where her main character lives." As Patty and Anton begin to demonstrate their honest affection for one another, Weaver has argued that The Summer of My German Soldier "provides the opportunity for developing readers to move beyond simple labels and stereotypes to gaining insight into complex issues." Similarly, Caroline C. Hunt has asserted that, in Christopher and James Lincoln Collier's Newbery Honor Book My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974), the story's Revolutionary War background "is basically an outward sign of the inner struggles of the characters, especially the adolescent main character."
Though war has been used as a popular and fruitful metaphor by many children's authors, there still remains several complex questions surrounding how to best present the morality of war to young readers. This has been dealt with in widely disparate fashions by children's writers throughout the centuries, ranging from emphasizing the glory and bravery of war to painting war as an act of pure evil to acknowledging the moral complexity and "shades of gray" many find inherent in war. Isaac Bashevis Singer has written that, "Children think about and ponder such matters as justice, the purpose of life, the why of suffering. They often find it difficult to make peace with the idea that animals are slaughtered so that man can eat them. They are bewildered and frightened by death. They cannot accept the fact that the strong should rule the weak." By capturing the realities of war—even fully portraying all of its ambiguities—many have argued that children are given an opportunity to consider such concepts on their own. Along this line of arguing, Kathleen Dale Colarusso has noted that children's texts that deal with war "can bring individuals, both young and old, to the realization that everyone contributes to the problems and the solutions through action and inaction." Further, through "reading about others who have dealt with constant fear and anxiety during war," Colarusso has stated, "adolescents today can obtain some insights into their own feelings and options for coping with and attempting to prevent situations of conflict." Francis E. Kazemek has suggested that, "Sympathetic, if not empathetic, understanding of those affected by war, both combatants and non-combatants, those engaged in it and those opposed to it, is best developed, I believe, through the literature that comes from it. Fiction, poetry, and oral histories allow students to enter into the lives of those who were impacted by war. When historical texts are brought to life by being paired with the flesh, blood, bone, and spirit of literature, our students are then better able to explore critically the past with both their heads and their hearts." Authors of juvenile war narratives often describe similar goals, such as demonstrating the futility of war and the need for alternative methods of resolving differences. Jennifer Armstrong has asserted that crisis resolution in any form is a valuable skill, suggesting that, "Literature about war gives young readers the chance to think of what is just and unjust to develop the capacity for philosophic inquiring doubt. It gives them the chance to contemplate the alternative to peace."
In terms of popular war literature for young readers, among the most widely read—and, some argue, effective—are biographical accounts of real events, such as Anne Frank's tragic World War II diary, The Diary of a Young Girl (1947). Other World War II memoirs in this vein include Elie Wiesel's Night (1956), Judith Kerr's When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971), and Ilse Koehn's Mischling, Second Degree (1977). Some of these works are more positive in tone, such as Lois Lowry's Newbery-winning novel Number the Stars (1989), which offers a fictionalized account of the rescue of nearly every Jew in Denmark during the early stages of World War II. Others are meant to be more inspirational in nature—Judith Kerr's The Other Way Around (1975) recounts the lives of Hans and Sophie Scholl, two college students in Germany who sought to campaign against Adolf Hitler's regime by publishing anti-government pamphlets. Still others are more focused on the impact of war and the cost of international conflicts on individuals. Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country (1985), for instance, details the lives of a Vietnam veteran and the daughter of one of his friends who perished in the conflict. Similarly, Eve Bunting's picture book The Wall (1990) offers the very youngest readers a story of a father and son finding the little boy's grandfather's name on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. These forms of children's war literature often cross over the lines of fiction and non-fiction, though some have argued that true stories such as The Diary of a Young Girl are inherently more powerful and affecting to young readers than works of historical fiction. Still, discussing the impact of war narratives on young readers, Francis E. Kazemek has argued that fiction "is not a panacea for our troubles, … for ages it has offered humankind a way of examining unquestioned assumptions, broadening understanding of other peoples and cultures, developing sympathy and compassion for the struggles of others, experiencing the common joys and sorrows that many people share, and seeing the world and ourselves differently, freshly. These might seem like oddly anachronistic and sentimental observations in a culture that thrives on the fetishism of Internet, virtual reality, and other ‘third wave’ technologies, but since literature deals ultimately with soul, we ignore it at our own peril."
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War [translated by Julia and Robin Whitby] (juvenile nonfiction) 1992
Always to Remember: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial [photographs by Jennifer Ashabranner] (juvenile nonfiction) 1988
Peace Book (juvenile fiction) 1982
Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself (young adult novel) 1977
The Falklands Summer (young adult novel) 1987
When the Wind Blows (picture book) 1982
The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman (picture book) 1984
Christopher and James Lincoln Collier
My Brother Sam Is Dead (young adult novel) 1974
The Bloody Country (young adult novel) 1976
The Winter Hero (young adult novel) 1978
AK (young adult novel) 1990
War Boy (juvenile memoir) 1989
Het Achterhuis [Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl] (diary and memoirs) 1947
The Diary of Anne Frank: The Definitive Edition [edited by Otto Frank and Mirjam Pressler] (diary, essays, and memoirs) 1995
The Paladin (young adult novel) 1978
Patricia Lee Gauch
Aaron and the Green Mountain Boys (young adult novel) 1972
This Time, Temple Wick? (young adult novel) 1974
Thunder at Gettysburg (young adult novel) 1975
Summer of My German Soldier (young adult novel) 1973
Morning Is a Long Time Coming (young adult novel) 1978
The Tiger Who Came to Tea (picture book) 1968
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (juvenile fiction) 1971
The Other Way Round (juvenile fiction) 1975
Mischling, Second Degree: My Childhood in Nazi Germany (juvenile memoir) 1977
Alan and Naomi (young adult novel) 1977
C. S. Lewis
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1950
Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1951
The Horse and His Boy [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1954
The Last Battle [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1956
Number the Stars (juvenile fiction) 1989
In Country (novel) 1985
Adem's Cross [illustrated by Ed Young] (young adult novel) 1996
Fallen Angels (young adult novel) 1988
*The Deliverers of their Country [illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger] (picture book) 1985
The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam [translated by Phan Thanh Hao; edited by Frank Palmos] (young adult novel) 1995
The Devil in Vienna (young adult novel) 1978
On Foreign Ground (young adult novel) 1986
The Upstairs Room (juvenile memoir) 1972
The Journey Back (juvenile memoir) 1976
Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)
The Butter Battle Book (picture book) 1984
Faithful Elephants (picture book) 1951; revised edition, illustrated by Ted Lewin, 1988
†Un di velt hot geshvign [abridged and translated as La Nuit and Night] (memoirs) 1956
Afghan Tales: Stories from Russia's Vietnam (young adult short stories) 1993
*Based on Nesbit's short story "The Deliverers of their Country," first published in Strand Magazine in 1899 and later reprinted in Nesbit's The Book of Dragons (1900).
†Un di velt hot geshvign, originally an 800-page memoir, was abridged into the much shorter La Nuit in 1958, which was later translated into English as Night in 1960.
Kem Knapp Sawyer (essay date March-April 1991)
SOURCE: Sawyer, Kem Knapp. "Experiencing War." Five Owls 5, no. 4 (March-April 1991): 86-7.
[In the following essay, Sawyer offers a critical reading of several young adult novels that attempt to contextualize war as more than an opportunity for personal glory, noting that, "many recent children's books are challenging the notion of warrior as hero while redefining the word courage."]
There was a time when war stories were great adventures, the warrior was a hero, and the war was fought for the glory of it all. Boys became men when the battle cry sounded—only cowards and the unfit were left behind. Bravery and medals went hand in hand, and enemy was a term that was easy to define. Little doubt existed as to the best course of action, and soldiers returned home as heroes. Mostly boys read these stories.
But many recent children's books are challenging the notion of warrior as hero while redefining the word courage. Today's authors are fighting stereotypes and adding new dimensions to an old subject. These stories are often told from a child's perspective, but not of a boy who dreams of following his father into battle. We hear the voices of British children sent to Canada during the Blitz, of a boy whose grandfather died in Vietnam, of a war orphan who creates his own fantasy world. Children whose images of a real war in the Persian Gulf come from television—the same source as their escapist entertainment—greatly need the deeper connections that only books can provide.
In After the Dancing Days (HarperCollins, 1986), a novel set in the Midwest after the end of World War I, Margaret Rostkowski paints a sympathetic picture of a family coping with the aftermath of war. Annie's father, a doctor who served in the war, has returned home to help wounded soldiers in the hospital there. Annie wants to accompany her father—against her mother's will. Annie's mother tries to protect her daughter from the "ugliness" of the war and hopes the family will put the war behind them. "We've done our part, giving Paul. That's enough. More than enough," she says, speaking of her own brother who died in the war. But Annie plans to learn what the war was all about, and for her, bringing comfort to the wounded isn't ugliness. Annie reconsiders what it is to be a hero when she learns her uncle didn't die in battle and has no Purple Heart. She is reminded that no medal will bring him back. "Uncle Paul didn't die the way we thought, not helping someone. Not brave and splendid. He got sick and died because nobody could take care of him. None of it is any fair at all." Andrew, a soldier Annie has befriended, one who was badly burned after he lost his gas mask during battle, helps Annie accept the truth behind her uncle's death. Rostkowski's prose is straightforward, her story heartrending, and though her subjects are serious, her tone is never preachy.
The last few years have produced several novels about the lives of children during World War II. Lois Lowry won the 1990 Newbery Medal for her account of the role one family played in the Danish resistance. In Number the Stars (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), Annemarie Johansen's best friend, a Jewish girl named Ellen, comes to live with the Johansens and pretends to be part of the family until late one night she is smuggled onto a boat that will bring her to Sweden. Lowry writes a story of endearing friendship and an escape to freedom that is filled both with suspense and compassion.
Kit Pearson's The Sky Is Falling (Viking, 1989) tells of ten-year-old Norah and her brother who travel from Britain to Canada as "war guests." The country they leave behind is one where children collect twisted bits of shrapnel and uniform badges as souvenirs. Saying good-bye to her parents is the hardest thing Norah's ever done, but fitting into her new home proves more difficult than she anticipated. Aunt Florence—as Norah is taught to call her new host—is cold, obstinate, and overbearing. Growing up under her tutelage proves a formidable task. Pearson's novel is so engaging that readers will become quite attached to Norah and to the bit of history of which she was a part.
Sigrid Heuck's The Hideout (Dutton, 1988), translated from the German by Rika Lesser, lends a different twist to the story of two children caught in the midst of war. Rebecca and her newfound friend Sami know two worlds. In one of them, where houses lie in ruins and air-raid alerts howl over the land, there's a "special bureau for every problem." Rebecca is brought to the Bureau of Missing Persons and sent from there to an orphanage. But on the way she flees from the train into a cornfield and meets Sami who introduces her to the second world. Sami shares his fantasy with Rebecca and together the two envision a more perfect, peaceful world. Readers who like to dream—and wish their dreams would come true—will be drawn to The Hideout.
War Boy (Arcade, 1989), Michael Foreman's childhood memories of wartime London, is presented in the format of an annotated sketchbook/scrapbook. The miscellany of pictures, some of which resemble posters or artifacts of the times, lend Foreman's memories an immediacy supported by the first-person text. Foreman remembers a fire-bomb coming through the roof of his bedroom, missing his bed by inches, and provides not only a sketch of the room and the path of the bomb but also the Minister of Home Security's explanation of incendiary bombs and a set of cigarette cards instructing the British people on how to dispose of one. Even in wartime conditions, though, children find ways of having fun; it is this contrast between everyday life and the constant specter of death that makes War Boy such a compelling book.
Two other illustrated books tell the story behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In Always to Remember (Dodd, Mead, 1988), Brent Ashabranner gives a clear and concise history of the Vietnam War and the bitter division that took place in America at the time. He raises questions but does not attempt to provide all the answers. He recalls the 58,000 servicemen and women killed or missing, the 300,000 wounded, the 7,500 sent to prison for refusing to serve, and the 425,000 who deserted, and he reminds us that twenty-four percent of all Marines sent into battle in Vietnam were killed or wounded. He tells the story of Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who dreamed of a memorial to the men and women who had been killed in Vietnam. His dream became an obsession and later a reality when Maya Ying Lin, a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate at Yale, won a design competition for the memorial.
Always to Remember is also a book about those who visit the memorial, the ones who leave notes behind like the one that reads "I'll see you guys in heaven 'cause we spent our time in hell." These people come to life in the many poignant photographs taken by Brent Ashabranner's daughter Jennifer—of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children touching names, tracing them on paper, leaving mementos, and of Vietnam veterans, some in wheelchairs, some hugging one another. Then there are the shots of the wall itself, captured in different seasons, the black granite in sunlight, under snow, or through a drizzle (that one with a caption that reads "Rain like tears on the memorial wall, Veterans Day, 1986). Of this special memorial Scruggs once said, "I think it will make people feel the price of war. I think it will make them understand that the price has to be paid in human lives."
Eve Bunting's The Wall (Clarion, 1990) is a picture book for younger children. The story is told by a little boy who visits the wall with his father. Together they search for his grandfather's name. When they find it, the father lifts the boy up so he can touch the name. The boy is proud that his grandfather's name is on the wall, but he says "I'd rather have my grandpa here, taking me to the river, telling me to button my jacket because it's cold." Ronald Himler's watercolors carry a haunting quality that suits the story well.
The images in these books will remain with their readers long after the last page is turned, lending perspective and depth to the electronic pictures that have been filling our nation's TV screens recently.
Patricia Lee Gauch (essay date fall 1993)
SOURCE: Gauch, Patricia Lee. "Why Writers Write of War: Looking into the Eye of Historical Fiction." ALAN Review 21, no. 1 (fall 1993): 12-16.
[In the following essay, Gauch—an author of historical fiction for children—explores why so many children's authors opt to write about war, giving particular focus to her own young adult novel, Thunder at Gettysburg.]
Two events happened recently that struck me as extraordinary. One was the televised footage of marauding looters streaming through the streets of Los Angeles, following the announcement of acquittal for the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating. The second was an opening at the New York Historical Society for The Liberators, a film in which the Black Panthers, tank unit of black soldiers under General Patton in World War II, liberated the mostly Jewish concentration camp prisoners at Dachau.
In the Los Angeles footage I saw rioters pulling drivers from cars and truck cabs, looting, and I saw neighborhood people forming broom brigades to clean up the mess their fellow human beings had made. I heard sirens wailing through the streets as ambulances made their way to hospitals. I heard a desperate plea from King himself in a taped interview: "Can we … Can we," he said, "Can we get along? … The security guard, he's gone [referring to a man killed in the riots] … he won't go home to his family…. For the children, for the old people, can we get along?"
In The Liberators, a Jew returning to Dachau with a veteran of the Black Panthers remembered a place in the concentration camp yard where he last saw his brother the day before the camp was liberated. He never saw him again. He remembered the black soldiers pouring through the gates freeing the dying, starving prisoners. "Black angels" he called them even though they were not in time to save his brother.
I wondered how history would view these events over time. I wondered how long the aura from the riots would be held in the concrete pavement and doorways of Los Angeles. How long the voices of the black angels would be held in the winds of Dachau.
Perhaps you understand what I mean. There are and have always been places where the past miraculously bleeds through. Depending on what happened at the place and where, different people come to be alone with history. Perhaps they—we—are listening to the echoes, the voices, the winds, the gun shots punctuating the night.
What a variety of such places comes to mind. I recall wanting to be alone near the walls of Tintagel in Cornwall, England, where it was rumored King Arthur lived. I sat against the sun-baked stone and listened to the waves on the cliffs below. And the echoes. In Delphi, Greece, all I wanted was to sit near the huge carved chunk of stone called The Navel of the World where the oracle sat nearly three thousand years ago, hoping for some connection. And in Austria I sat near a single tree on the battlefield of Austerlitz where Napoleon and the Russian troops met on a farmer's hill and fought a battle that killed thousands and has engaged writers and partisans ever since.
It is mysterious, this desire for connection. It is awesome. At times, wonder-filled. It is not the romance or mystery of this connection that I want to write about, however.
I am both a writer and editor of historical fiction and fictionalized history. My fascination with history was what drew me to writing children's books in the first place, me writing a book about Major Robert Rogers of Ranger fame and coming to the Jean Fritz Writer's Workshop in Katonah, New York, with eighteen other women—names you would know—to learn to write for children. Purely and simply, I had a passion for history, and I wanted to write it, to be a closer, more intimate part of it.
I have asked myself frequently: what is it about history that is so enticing to a reader? So intriguing to a writer? Certainly selecting a moment in history allows the writer or reader to go back in time, to enjoy a secondary world—a strange new world—rich in detail, rich in essence of time and place. It is Boston with horses clopping down the street and sheep grazing on the commons. (Can you hear it? Can you see it?) It is a fireplace in a sod house, the farmer's feet cold on the rugless ground. (Do you see it? Feel it?) It is a mansion, the shutters falling off, chickens in the yard, the inhabitants having been driven off in the face of oncoming troops. A historical story gives us a palpable place, and, as in fantasy where a whole world is created, we can grasp this Place because of the wonderful accoutrements. The sensory possibilities of it excite the writer and, done well, allow the reader to buy into the story even though it is "back in time."
Is this what makes history so appealing? Or is it the drama of it? History selected for story frequently contains such amazing events: a surreptitious plan to dump the tea into the harbor; a story of a seaside community turning on a young girl whom they believe is a witch; two brothers, each on a different side, meeting alone on a smoke-clouded battlefield. The reader is intrigued with any world gone crazy, particularly when the roots of that event are imbedded in reality. This really happened!
Surely the appeal of historical story has something to do with the ironies of history. Because we know the ending, the twists of fate, the upside downness of history, the unpredictability, it is particularly poignant. Not only is there craziness then; add to the games of history the obvious capriciousness that a long look at historical event reveals.
Certainly the writer writing history gives us an opportunity to probe the historical event, as well. "The human desire to know ‘why’ is as powerful as the desire to know what happened next, and it is a desire of a high order," the writer Janet Burroway has written. Recreating the event, setting up the questions and the scenery, and replaying it, in order to look for answers anew. In order to understand the chaos of it, understand the craziness anew: now for a writer, there is a demand of a high order. Probing the past, the past of an Elizabeth Speare's Witch of Blackbird Pond or Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins, for example, is clearly a joy of the highest order.
It was this idea, however, that led a friend of mine to ask a very hard question, and one that, I believe, led me to the essence of what history, historical fiction in particular, is. And why I and so many other writers and readers gravitate toward it. "I understand," this friend said, "why you want to probe and understand and bring to life history, but why," she said, "do you write of war? Don't you celebrate it? Why don't you write about peace?" This was no easy question.
I had been enjoying the dialogue on why I love/write/read history, but this was a painful question. I had written about the battle of Gettysburg, I had written about the battle of Bennington in Aaron and the Green Mountain Boys and the mutiny at Jockey Hollow in This Time, Tempe Wick. I had followed the soldier Major Robert Rogers into innumerable battles. And I had edited books where war was a primary protagonist, the latest of which was I Am Regina by Sally Keehn. Was I celebrating war?
Was it a cheap trick—to excite the readers, give them a goodly amount of dramatic and violent action to entice them to read my story? I was the writer or editor; what was it in me? Why did I read the big pictorial book on the Civil War by Bruce Catton, studying each battle on the fold-out page—miniature soldiers lined up like so many stick figures on each side of the smoking river or field? Why did I take my son to the battlefields where I walked the Manassas hills and visited the alley of land behind the wall at Antietam, and sat at the base of the hill where Rebel and Yankee soldiers had sat—and fought—at Fredericksburg. Why did I love Ken Shara's Gettysburg battle book Killer Angels so much—I taught it, read it, reread it. Was I thirsty for war?
Certainly, it is true that when I go into a classroom to talk about Thunder at Gettysburg, I frequently begin by sketching out the lines of the battle. Perhaps this is not surprising. Gettysburg was a place where, when I visited, I had heard the echoes loud and clear. I had heard the voices in the wind, horses stumbling in the fields cut down by cannon and stray shot. In truth the battle was what had drawn me to story. Feeling so impassioned by the place and the accounts of the battle, I had searched for a child's viewpoint, and had found Tillie Pierce's journal in the museum at Gettysburg. I was intrigued with her eye-witness story.
And so, when I am with children, I begin with a kind of map. Here, I say, here, was the town of Gettysburg. Here was where Tillie Pierce lived; here, that's Chambersburg Pike where some Confederate soldiers were just looking for some shoes when they ran into a Union party. Here is Seminary Ridge, up at the rear of the college, where the first battle broke out. And here, I write on the board, is Cemetery Ridge, down here, the Peach Orchard, and yes here is Taneytown Road. Remember that road, I say.
Then, in my presentation, I always set up the battle itself. On the first day, Tillie was here, at her home in town. Probably in the attic of her own house watching the battle. I've visited that house, I say; it is still there. Her family thought it was fascinating that the battle was so close. And then, the winds turned. The Confederate soldiers, strung out along Seminary Ridge, began firing; by night of the first day there were stray shots into town. The Pierce family was sick. It was good enough for them—adults—to stay in town and get through this skirmish. But what of Tillie? And so on that first day they sent Tillie with Henny Shriver and her two young children out to the Weikert farm a way down Taneytown Road, behind any battle lines, to the country farm where she would be safe.
It was late afternoon when they finally started out. Union soldiers passed her, more and more of them, moving toward the town. Good! Surely, her parents had done just the right thing, sending her to the Weikert farm. Look at all these fresh soldiers coming up from the south to fight this battle. Her mother and father, all of the Gettysburg folk, were all going to be just fine now. This battle would be over lickety split.
For many years I have taught a writing course at Drew University, and when I discuss what plot is, it is interesting that the analogy I find most useful is that plot is like a war. It is a struggle between equal forces. It is not a good struggle if the sides are too uneven, if one side is clearly the good guy. The outcome needs to be in doubt; the fact that the forces are almost evenly matched is important. In this plot war there needs to be something at stake—something worth fighting over. And there should be a series of battles—the power shifting back and forth—with the last battle being the most dangerous and crucial of all.
You can see why this definition comes to mind. There was nothing certain about the Battle of Gettysburg. Never was a battle more uncertain. Never were two sides more equal—not so much with regard to whether they were uniformed (or not uniformed), shoed, or even fed, but in the respect in which both sides were held. The Southerners, frequently underfed, underuniformed, at times a ragtag army at its best, had spirit: they were after all defending an entire way of life, a golden place. And how they fought.
The Northerners, what vigor! In numbers they came from cities and farms, better equipped and supplied, but not so unified—more frequently called by their state name: the thirty-first Maine, the fifteenth Michigan. At the beginning of the conflict, speaking different dialects and sharing different cultures, they were not so bonded then, but in the end, they were certain they had to fight to keep their country together. And they fought.
I am romanticizing. But all to say, there was doubt about the outcome. In battle after battle, the doubt was restated: Antietam, Fredericksburg, Bull Run, Gettysburg. Say the words: Antietam, Fredericksburg, Bull Run, Gettysburg, and a hundred years later we still hear the echoes.
And so Tillie was caught in a moment when the outcome was suddenly uncertain. Under a hot July sun she traveled down the road with Henny Shriver, her little girls, and other refugees, as soldiers came in streams from the direction they were headed. Surely Henny and the girls would be safe. Their soldiers—their Union soldiers—were here.
But the ironies of real life asserted themselves. Without telephones, established communication of any kind, and in the heat of threatened battle, how could the Pierces know the Weikert house, exactly because of its out-of-the-way location, was being used as a hospital? When Tillie arrived, there were empty pine boxes already being piled in the back yard. Coffins. She had been prepared for safety, but she could see—even as a child—that the winds of war were shifting, that this place might not be so safe after all. By the end of the day—nine-year-old that she was—she knew for certain.
For me it has always been interesting to see in literature the connection between the community and the self. The writer is always probing the connection. The tension of it. And so, though young Tillie thought she could escape what was threatening the community of Gettysburg—though it was what her parents planned, she could not. As the battle breaks out, pulling into the vortex the people in the countryside around it, so the battle breaks out in Tillie. It is parallel action—both inner and outer action.
Yet, it is through Tillie that the reader is forced into the eye of the storm itself. She sees: the pine boxes will be coffins, people ripping cloth for the wounded that have begun to come in, and because she sees, she begins to help herself, hauling water, ripping cloth. She sees.
But on the second day her vision expands. The wounded are brought in; she has already gotten used to her tasks, but now, out the window she sees a Yankee soldier—her soldier—beating his horse in the back yard of the Weikert house! She sees a Confederate soldier who had mistakenly wandered into the Weikert's back yard, confronted and shot not a hundred feet from where she is looking out the window. She sees.
Wait, the Southern soldiers are the bad guys, aren't they? But look how the boy who has been shot and is lying at the door dying, suffers. The Northern soldiers are the good guys, aren't they? But look how the man beats his animal when it won't respond quickly enough. The world has gone crazy! Tillie sees.
Clearly the war is not only in the plot, not only in the historical replay, but in the child herself.
Shara wrote in an essay on writing that "the outcome of a story must be in doubt." Tillie has come to the farm confident—wanting because her parents wanted—to be safe and now the outcome is in doubt. By the end of the second day, the house has become a major way station for the wounded. Soldiers are everywhere on the property inside the house and out. Battles are being waged in the peach orchard directly south of town, battles are being fought in the wheat field—names that before this day were only a casual way to impart some information to someone about the farm or the farmer: "He's over yonder, in the wheat field," "The new planting's done in the peach orchard." Now the names have become etched in the annals of history. The Wheat Field. The Peach Orchard. Echoes.
Still, for Tillie it all amounts to the bucket after bucket of water she is hauling, the cloth she is rip- ping, the men that they are trying to put back together, or are putting into the pine boxes, which have now become a considerable pile in the back yard.
The world has gone crazy. But the guns, in the main are still nearer town. At least Tillie is safe; she is helping and she is safe.
But before the day is over it becomes clear that the little hills behind them—big round top and little round top (there are no capital letters on that day; that was for the days that followed)—have become the center of some fighting. Indeed, there, some Rebel soldiers are coming through the gap in the hills pouring right into the Weikert back yard. And shot. There, not so far from the door. Tillie can not take her eyes off the fallen men, and there are more and more men in gray uniforms sweeping down from the gap.
"We are going to have to make a run across the field," Tillie and Henny are told by Mrs. Weikert. She points to a farm perhaps a half mile away. "Bring the children."
And so, with the sounds of guns breaking the late morning stillness behind them, Mrs. Weikert, Henny, Tillie, and the children begin to run across the field—straight east. With a sense of survival Tillie has never felt before, she runs, stumbling across the rutted field, dragging one of the little Shriver girls along behind her as fast as she can run. When from the east, BAROOM!, a cannon fires. The cannon ball whistles over her, landing behind her.
"Run," Mrs. Weikert says, when BAROOM!, another cannon ball explodes followed by the whistling of another cannon ball. Mrs. Weikert stops. Where is the cannon coming from? My God! From the very direction they are running to for safety.
A world gone crazy. BAROOM! And Mrs. Weikert turns. "We need to go back, Tillie, Henny," she screams. "Turn around!" And the five of them begin running back across the dusty field to the farmhouse where there is no safety either.
A world gone crazy.
We can see the community in this story: we can see the shadows and hear the voices of the Northern soldiers and the Southern soldiers, we can hear Mrs. Weikert's frightened voice, but our eye falls on Tillie. That author has done that to us; in this case, as author, I have done that.
The balance has shifted back and forth; the power of the forces has shifted back and forth. From north of town to east. From east of town to southwest. From Yankee to Rebel, from Rebel to Yankee, but the eye of the storm in this book is in one young girl: Tillie. Indeed, for the life of this story, for this moment in history, it would seem the very brunt of the battle is on Tillie herself. It has moved inward to her doorstep, to her heart.
Scared and tired, uncertain, having seen more of life in one day than she had seen in her other nine years of days, Tillie loses faith. She makes it to the house, runs downstairs into the cellar with the others, and, essentially, quits. She will not rip any more bandages, or get any more water. She is done.
She opts out of a world this crazy. Who would blame her?
But then in the corner, when her eyes have adjusted to the light, she sees a man. "Girl," he says. "Girl, I'd like some water." Tillie gets the man some water, tells him her name, talks to him about the battles. "They say we've stopped the Rebs at Little Round Top," he says. Tillie barely knows what he's talking about but she sees he is bleeding and she keeps talking, finally gets him some water, gets him some bread. When he closes his eyes and his hand falls on her arm, she lets it stay there. She feels as if he is a friend, and promises to visit him in the morning. But in the morning he is dead.
July 3, 1863. The day plays itself out; the cannon keep exploding, there is the thunder of gunshot, and finally near three o'clock Tillie feels the air get still, Sunday-morning still. People begin waiting by the fence. Wounded men, their arms and legs broken or bleeding or gone, lay scattered all over the yard, like bits of cloth. Nobody speaks. Finally a soldier comes past yelling: "We've won!" he says. "We've won."
Tillie sat down on the wet grass. For a long time she sat and thought. About General Weed's hand on her arm, about the men lying outside on the straw mats. About the smoke, the screaming bullets, bursting shells, about this year … now. It was better to win. But look what had happened. Dear God, look what happened.
I loved James Joyce, not usually considered a historical writer, but clearly one. His period is of the early century, the Irish upheavals. The frontier he explores is the Dublin community—and the mind. And when the warring forces meet, almost always within his characters, something happens that presses the characters to a moment of decision. An epiphany, James Joyce called this revelatory moment.
In The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, there was the excruciating and exhilarating moment on the sandhills near the harbor when Stephen first realized that he was meant to be an artist. There was the terrible internal war until then, the crisis of the mind and spirit that pressed Stephen to the recognition, pressed him to the moment in light so new that it was as if he had never seen before. Such a moment of recognition changes the landscape of the character and the reader—forever.
"It was better to win, but look what happened Dear God look what happened."
Why do we writers write of history, in particular of war? To examine a chronology, to flesh out a historical point, to interpret a period? Perhaps a little of all of these, but in fiction we understand these matters by looking at the human being under pressure, under siege, the human being forced to see. Like Oedipus in a Greek play, the hero may not win, but he sees. And his life, her life, will not be same after the seeing.
I never began to understand war—and I know that it is only a beginning—until I read Ken Shara's Killer Angels. And one chapter stands in my mind, even now. It is the battle that later was known for its fishhook strategy, at the battle of Little Round Top. I knew that battle through one man, Colonel Richard Chamberlain of Maine, and his relationship to those around him. And what I saw was courage, kindness, intelligence, selflessness, a man driven by what he believed, forced to an epiphany by the exigencies of battle and of survival: life under pressure.
War is a terrible thing; that is what Thunder at Gettysburg is about. But the truth is, to a recognizedly more tolerable degree, every day is a war. Some days are bigger wars than others. The human being and his faculties are forced into actions, reactions, decisions. If the human being is lucky, he or she has moments of light, recognition about their world and themselves, from which they will emerge different people.
I don't know what is going to happen to Rodney King of the Los Angeles beating trial, but he had a moment of light. He spoke true and we all heard: "Can we … can we get along?" When the writer writes of a character, he sees the marvelous contours of a human being: the light and the dark. He sees a character having faced some winds of war, some vagaries of life, some arbitrariness and fussiness, some chaos of life, and having emerged, if he or she is lucky, with some understanding of himself or herself, and his relationship to the greater community.
I believe these recognitions are a part of all fine literature. History serves a unique function. It ties us to a continuum, assures us that events have been that changed the world and affect us in whatever present, and that events will be. Through this historical continuum, assurance of a past, and assurance of a future, fiction and an interpreted nonfiction present nothing less than a mirror of human possibility.
When I came to Philomel some five years ago as an editor, people said to me, "Historical fiction doesn't sell, don't bother with it." And I said, story with its core in humanity will always sell, and will always be read. No need to separate it as a genre in the scope of literature. It is story.
To Tillie, the faceless Rebel soldier in the back yard was dead, and the men in the boxes were dead. This man with whom she had traded words and shared water had been a momentary friend.
And he was gone.
So this then was war.
The next day in a drizzling rain General Lee and his wagons of broken men wound through the hills like a sad gray ribbon blown to the wind. When they were gone, Tillie climbed Little Round Top and looked toward town.
Still numb, older than her nine years by far more than two days, Tillie was ready to live again.
When we look into historical fiction, we turn the album of the family that we live in, the human family, as surely as we look at the pictures of Easter of 1984 and Charlie's birthday in 1989. And we look into the eye of the story—we look into the eye of self. What we see, if we are lucky, through the sculpting eye of a writer, is that man, woman, child, not only survive, they prevail, and that is the basic assurance that supports our life and our behavior.
We don't have to win all of our battles, but praise God if we can only gain some insight, so that when we create the new pages in the history of humankind, we not only write but live, and bring to the creation something new.
Jacques Barchilon (essay date December 1993)
SOURCE: Barchilon, Jacques. "Children and War in the Fairy Tale." Merveilles et Contes 7, no. 2 (December 1993): 317-39.
[In the following essay, Barchilon examines the portrayal of war in fairy tales, arguing that the "fairy tale is a historical-cultural document that has much to tell us about the past, and the present."]
When I was planning the major portion of this book, I had no idea that it would lead me to questions concerning world peace.
Alice Miller, For Your Own Good (242)
If we think of violence and war in the vast realm of children's literature there are many examples of engagements, commitments, and reminiscences of children actively involved in varying degrees, if not with warfare, at least with the spectacle of their elders' misdeeds or exploits. How could it be otherwise?
Children have always been with adults throughout recorded history, and before. Of course parents have often tried to protect them from the horrors of war, but it has not always been possible. Indeed, children have survived even the unspeakable sufferings of death camps, and tried to forget, or remembered with great pain. At other times, the experience of war has not been so tragic and can be recalled with fondness. Such are the two extremes. And I need to mention these at the beginning of this research, because it is necessary to be aware that children themselves can remember the worst and the best (if there can be a "best" in war). We cannot pretend that they don't exist when we adults make the worst mess we can in human affairs: war, persecution, murder, and the rest.
Children are, and have always been, the spectators of their elders, be it their parents or others. This can be the "reality," of children's memories coming to haunt their adulthood, and their readers-listeners, when they become writers.1 There is a growing realm of adults recalling the child they were in times of war during our own century, and it is worth studying.
My scholarly curiosity has led me to seek the depiction, behavior and feelings of children in the folk and fairy tale in the broadest sense, because of the creative imagination manifest in the genre. For me the fairy tale is a historical-cultural document that has much to tell us about the past, and the present. But right at the beginning I should say that it would be silly to pretend that fairy tale children are "real" children—they are products of adults' imaginations. I will then speak of the "child" in the fairy tale as a convenient critical shorthand term.
It is the child, often accompanied by his or her mother or siblings, but with the reservation that it is the child as perceived by the adult author in a given socio-cultural context. And when I say "the child," I may just as well refer to a man or a woman; for me these are grown-up youngsters, adult "heroes" dreamed up by children expressing themselves in the fairy tale.
Understood also: I am not primarily dealing with the general theme of cruelty in the folk and fairy tale, a familiar subject well treated and documented by many eminent scholars, for instance, Lutz Röhrich and Maria Tatar, to name but two. Let us now plunge into some stories.
What follows takes place in peacetime (for the flavor of it, I am quoting the quaint 1707 English translation of a seventeenth-century French tale):
… [a certain king] was a declared Enemy of Pleasure, he delighted in nothing but Blood and Wounds; he had a grim Look, a long Beard, hollow Eyes; he was lean and shriveled, always dressed in Black; his Hair like Bristles, greasy and nasty: Passengers [travelers] were every day seized as they Traveled, slain and devoured by Wild-Beasts, to please him: he hanged Malefactors with his own Hands; he rejoiced in others Troubles: When a fond Mother loved her Boy or Girl tenderly, he sent for the Mother and the Darling Child, and broke his Arm, or twisted his Neck about before her Face. His Dominions were justly called the Kingdom of Tears.
(d'Aulnoy 563; emphasis mine)
What on earth is this? It sounds like a description of a sadistic Nazi in a concentration camp in the middle of World War Two; it is certainly not what one would usually expect in a fairy tale. But this passage belongs in a story written three hundred years ago (1697) by a woman, Mme d'Aulnoy. I would suggest that this quotation be put in context, in a dialogical Bakhtinian sense. Mme d'Aulnoy was the fond mother of four daughters who grew up to adulthood and married. In her world she saw much violence. She was herself persecuted and probably beaten by a husband she hated.2
Understood in this perspective, we see that her statement can be a protest against barbarity. She contrasts this cruel king with his neighbor, King Joyeux (the joyful king). The wicked king—not mentioned by any other name—becomes jealous of his happy neighbor and decides to go to war against him. The cruel king's savagery is thus a prelude to war. As we can expect, children and women will suffer. In stark contrast to what happens in most fairy tales, the wicked king wins the war, after having killed his neighbor King Joyful. It is now the good queen's turn to suffer. Her palace is invaded; the wicked king barges into her bedroom: "… he flug [flung] off the Bed-cloaths, tore the tresses of her Hair which flew about her Shoulders, threw her upon his Back like a Bushel of Meal [wheat or corn], carried her down stairs, and placed her behind him on his coal black Steed" (564).
This most striking passage seems to bring forth visions of prehistoric man in all its elemental brutality. This is the plight of a widowed queen now become the victor's prey, like Andromache during the Trojan War. The captured queen's situation is all the more tragic because she is pregnant. Her conqueror could kill her, together with the child living inside her; but he decides to spare her life and jail her, considering that her child might eventually marry one of his own. A slave and the fruit of her womb belong to her master, the fate of the vanquished in this not "rosy" fairy tale. Consequently, the child should be taken away from her at birth. Only because this is a fairy tale, the child is saved, through the help of a grateful mouse (in reality a fairy who took that form to test the jailed queen).
In case anyone should say that such a fairy tale account should not be taken seriously because it is merely childish entertainment—an account of horrors invented by adults to inculcate the child with examples of good behavior eventually rewarded through the happy ending—I would like to say simply: "perhaps, but there are other things in the fairy tale." What matters in this kind of narrative is not the ending, but the manner of telling. The style of an author, like the tone of a composer, makes the music and the tale sui generis.
Charles Perrault, writing at the same time as Mme d'Aulnoy, gave the depiction of children in war an unmistakable stamp. On the surface, his tale of "La Belle au bois dormant" (Sleeping Beauty) seems quite traditional in the account of the queen and her children's plight while the king is away at war, entrusting their welfare to his mother, a familiar mistake. As usual in countless other tales, the jealous mother-in-law or stepmother orders the death of the unfortunate queen and her children. Is this "reality?" It did happen historically that queens and children were killed. But Perrault's language is ironic; the king goes to war against his neighbor the Emperor Cantalabutte. Such a choice of name is ridiculous-sounding in French, as if you said in English something like "Emperor Fuzzy-Wuzzy." Such wording is clear indication of childish playfulness. War in this context is not to be taken seriously and corresponds to play-acting.
As can be expected, the children and their mother are not put to death nor eaten by the wicked mother-in-law. Substitutes are found and the children and mother are sheltered by the very servants charged with putting them to death. When the young boy is found hiding at court, he is characteristically practicing war as only children know how: "playing at fencing with his pet monkey" (Carter 18).3 This is not the first time that war is "defused" through playful treatment in the fairy tale. It is a current theme, and practically eternal.
One of the most charming examples of playful warlike behavior is found in a modern Turkish folk tale collected and published in French, "Le Laurier volant" (The Flying Laurel Tree), by Aynur Flamain and Michèle Nicolas. The episode is central to the tale, and rather striking. A young peri [fairy], married to a mortal, is "dying of boredom" in her wedded state and dreams of freedom (80); she manages to escape and goes to her magician father's kingdom, where she is eventually found by her husband, doing what to her was the supreme expression of female independence: "dressed as a [male] officer, she is giving orders to a troupe of soldiers parading in front of her" (81). Considering the restrictive traditional male-Islamic context of ancient Turkish society, a young woman, even a fairy, ordering soldiers around seems most unusual.
And yet the theme of the woman warrior, through the form of the girl soldier, or girl disguised as a boy, is rather frequent in folklore. This motif expresses the plausible longing in a woman to fulfill the role of a man, even if it entails disguising herself and dressing as a man.4 The pretense provides escape from sexual discrimination: the disguised girl masters "the sexual difference, since she can at will take advantage of her ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ behavior, or even incarnate bisexuality, if not reinvent sexual ‘differentiation’" (Velay-Vallantin 348-49).5
What can be more thrilling for a girl than to escape her female "inferior" position? Interestingly enough, if the young girl comes forward to play a male role, it is often because there is no male sibling to answer a call for war service. In Mme d'Aulnoy's "Belle-Belle, or the Chevalier Fortuné," the story begins with this entreaty by the oldest daughter of a nobleman who has no son to offer his king for military duty in time of war:
… permit me to set out for the army. I am of a good height and strong enough; I will dress myself in male attire, and pass for your son; if I do not perform any heroic actions, I'll at least save you the journey [to apologize to the king for not sending anyone of your family for service], or the [required] tax, and that is a great deal in our situation.
Once again, this is an escape from childhood into adult heroism. For, as we can well expect, the girl-soldier is invariably as brave and powerful in peace and war as any of her male counterparts. What makes the daydream quite significant in terms of sexual identity is that the true sex of the heroine is revealed at the end, and all is resolved through the happy end, by a princely marriage.
A curious twist of the disguise is found in a Beduin tale from Syria, "The Boy in the Girl's Dress," collected by Inea Busnaq in her Arab Folktales. Here, by way of this theme, youthful erotic wishes seem fulfilled (and why should not children have erotic dreams?). The boy, Hasim from the Khalidi tribe, "becomes" a girl at the suggestion of his father, for they have moved to a new oasis in the territory of the Shammari, an enemy's tribe, during a time of truce in an incessant war. The disguise is necessary, as the Shammari neighbor, having only a girl as offspring, might not have offered hospitality to a former enemy with a son.
For this reason, my son, I want you to dress in girl's clothes and pass for my daughter. We will call you Halima, as the Shammari's daughter is called … you must behave with modesty towards our neighbor's girl, must not kiss her even if she kisses you, and must not insult her with a careless word.
With the twists and turns of a traditional Arab tale, many péripéties follow. At first the disguise is successful, for a whole season, but when the tribe is attacked and camels and horses are stolen, the boy as girl sheds his disguise, assumes his real identity as Husam and fights the enemy tribe victoriously. Husam and Halima are deeply in love, but the girl's parents are offended that her daughter may have been dishonored by having shared a tent with a man in disguise. With typical male Arab authority her father takes her far away to hand her in marriage to another man; the lovers are separated, perhaps forever. Yet there is hope, as the new fiancé, learning of the love Halima has for Husam, renounces her, a rare gesture for a traditional Arab. All will eventually end well, as Ali, the generous fiancé, falls in love with Hasna, Husam's sister, "more beautiful by far than Halima" (44).
It is an appealing story, which, strangely enough, does not appear as a tale type in the international classification. The predominant model for all those stories seems to be that of a woman impersonating a man; "Vasilisa the Priest's Daughter," a Russian folk tale, may be one of the best examples, because it is at once witty and at the same time somewhat utopian.
Vasilisa Vasilievna is so smart that no one, not even King Barkhat, can outwit her. She passes all the tests of skill and always comes out ahead of every male; she even "survives" the bathhouse test, which would entail her disrobing in the communal steam room. But she is so quick that she manages to take her bath and flee before the king has even begun to undress himself, leaving behind the following note, which is also the penultimate sentence of the tale: "Ah, King Barkhat, raven that you are, you could not surprise the falcon in the garden! For I am not Vasily Vasilievich, but Vasilisa Vasilievna" (Pantheon Book of Russian Fairy Tales 133). What is utopian here is that the girl as boy is not revealed at the end of the tale, as happens in all other versions of the same tale type. She escapes detection, while remaining a woman and bragging about it. As the very last sentence triumphantly proclaims: "And so King Barkhat got nothing for all his troubles: for Vasilisa Vasilievna was a clever girl, and very pretty too!" (133).
Let us now look at some other stories published in our own century. The English writer Edith Nesbit published a story of children at war against an invasion of dragons that look strangely like flying dinosaurs. The dragons have paralyzed the country—England around 1910. But a brother and his sister, Harry and Effie, both barely in their teens, decide to do something, whence the appropriate title of the book, The Deliverers of their Country.
With characteristic courage and ingenuity they set out to first wake up St. George, the traditional dragon slayer; they find him in St. George's Church as a marble statue that comes to life. But he cannot be of much help, because he can only fight one dragon at a time: "… one man one dragon was my motto." He continues: "… things have changed since my time … everything is done by machinery now" (7). The children learn from St. George that dragons don't like cold or water, so they set out to find out how to modify the weather. It is done though the use of a set of gigantic taps that will bring on the snow and cold, setting off a new Ice Age, where the dragons disappear in a gigantic black hole labeled "Waste" in the middle of England. With her typical twist of humor, Edith Nesbit ends the story by pointing out that once the danger has passed: "Dragons do not seem so important when they are dead and gone" (13). And the children do not even get a monument erected in their honor.
This story suggests (notwithstanding the surface humor) that war is too serious an affair to entrust to adults; children are more capable. Didn't they rescue their country? It is significant that at the same time Edith Nesbit was publishing her stories in the first decades of our century, a young adolescent was reading her stories with fascinated attention. His name was C. S. Lewis, now very famous for his many novels with young characters (partly inspired by Nesbit's depictions of heroic children in various periods of history). These children lead dual lives: in their otherworldly realms they become great warriors. In the words of their creator, their escape into another world is through the hidden magic door of an attic wardrobe, and "in that different world they … become Kings and Queens in a country called Narnia. While they were in Narnia they seemed to reign for years and years; but when they came back through the doors and found themselves in England again it all seemed to have taken no time at all" (Prince Caspian 1).6 The wars that these children become involved in are an idealized and "unreal" version of Medieval England's wars; Narnia's soldiers are a complex medley of bears, dwarfs, and giants, with humans as generals.
Whatever violence C. S. Lewis may conjure in his fairy novels, it is a violence situated in a wonder realm offering an escape from everyday reality, fulfilling the function of fantasy literature. Other authors evoke recent historic horrors. Isaac Bashevis Singer tells us in "The Power of Light" (Stories for Children) how Rebecca and David, two starving children doomed to certain death in their hidden shelter under the destroyed Warsaw ghetto, manage to escape and even reach Israel (a true story). The magic that gives them strength is the light of a candle they have miraculously found the first night of Hanukkah in their underground cave. The story is told with great sparseness and verbal felicity by the author, who heard it from David and Rebecca, now the adult parents of a child not yet "old enough to understand what we went through and how miraculously we were saved" (216).
Also rooted in contemporary times, there was an unusual outgrowth of beautifully symbolic fairy tales during the Weimar Republic's heyday. Given the then-recent memories of First World War horrors, it is not surprising if many of the stories are pacifist and decidedly antiwar. In 1922 Robert Grotzsch published his tale of "The Enchanted King," one of the grimmest stories ever imagined, and yet a story with such poetic justice that the reader, even a child, can be deeply moved. King Blackbeard is the terror of all his neighbors and his realm as well. He has sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths in one unjust war after another, until the day he is cursed to become a cripple and live through centuries of misery. He is defeated in a duel during a murderous battle and loses an arm and a leg:
You were the terror of your country and your neighbors and caused deaths for others thousands of times, and now you shall limp from battlefield to battlefield for this and suffer death thousands of times … Whenever you come across a dying man … [you will have the power] also to fulfill his last two wishes … And only when someone forgets the second wish after the first, then death will finally relieve you while the other man shall live.
This sad tale has a beautiful ending, celebrating the hushed peace that unites soldiers of all nations as they lie wounded and dying after a terribly murderous battle. What unites them is the haunting music played by a fellow soldier—he too dying—blowing on his bugle (his last wish):
They sat down in a semicircle around the bugler and listened to the song with rapt faces. They all came, friends and foes, Bavarians and Prussians, Pandorians and French, Bashkirs and Croatians … as if they never wanted to fight against one another again … "If it could only remain this way [thought the bugler], I have no other wish than this."
What happens is a fitting ending to this story. The result of the "peace wish" expressed by the dying man is the gift of life: the bugler recovers from his lethal wound.
The peace lesson of this tale is a direct consequence—so to speak—of the First World War. It tells of the horrors of warfare as it was practiced then, horrible enough to make combatants on both sides rebel against this "heroic butchery," to recall Voltaire's apt and succinct image in the second chapter of his immortal Candide.
More than half a century later, after the renewed and worse horrors of World War II, the British physicist-author Bernard Benson wrote the Peace Book (1980), which was translated into twenty-five languages, including French, Russian, Chinese and German. Just as Grotzsch's book was inspired by the First World War, this new volume is a product of the Cold War. The volume is published as handwritten text, all in capitals, and illustrated with "childish" drawings. In a nutshell, Benson's book seeks to bring the astonishing truth or "proof" that our earth can be saved from its threatening thermonuclear conflict through a simple global convocation of all those who do not want to be killed. While the idea might not be very new, it is rather originally brought forth by a mere child who manages to get a spot on national television:
I DON'T WANT TO DIE
I WANT TO LIVE!
ALL THE CHILDREN WANT TO LIVE!
THE BIG PEOPLE WANT TO LIVE!
DON'T LISTEN TO THE MAD PEOPLE—LISTEN
TO LIFE CRYING OUT INSIDE OF YOU.
DON'T LET THEM KILL
WE CAN SAVE IT!
This speech, seen by millions on their television screens, is the beginning of a long adventure for peace, as the little boy is invited by the presidents of the three superpowers, whom he cannot persuade to destroy their enormous, evergrowing stockpiles of weapons primed for mutual destruction. He gives up on hope and life, and stops eating. However, by now he has captured the hearts of innumerable friends, including many politicians. In their despair the heads of governments ask again for the child's advice; he tells them to exchange positions, each going to the "enemy's" capital, together with their families, in order to see the world and war from another perspective. Obviously, this plan is opposed by most politicians. This is almost the end of a story whose telling extends over two hundred pages. The following dialogue sounds rather funny, in spite of its sinister connotations:
THEN A FIERY EYED
POLITICIAN SHOUTED …
"CAN YOU IMAGINE
OF THIS CRAZY PLAN?"
AND THE LITTLE
BOY SAID …
"CAN YOU IMAGINE
OF A THERMO-NUCLEAR
This exchange is the turning point in the little boy's crusade and its success: the presidents of countries in possession of the famous keys to unleash nuclear holocaust decide unanimously to have these melted: "… for all to see … soften the keys in fires … forge each key of death into a leaf of life … For each nation to keep as a sacred symbol …" (209).
Admittedly, all this sounds utopian: "A little boy changing the world, a little boy saving it from nuclear war! Preposterous! Impossible!" Two answers are possible. Firstly, one could say that since we are in the realm of art, i.e., a fairy tale in which anything can happen, it is possible. Why not therefore enjoy the story and learn from it? Secondly, one might say that there may be other answers to the problem of war and peace confronting children. They should not worry about it; they should be protected from it. As if to say that the fairy tale has no business dealing with such topics. Yet, as we see in this study, the topic does exist in the fairy tale.
We have a particularly interesting treatment of the protection of a child from war, a tale written by none other than Wilhelm Grimm. The story had been lost for a long time, in fact more than 150 years, and discovered only in 1983. Preserved in a letter written by Wilhelm Grimm in 1816 to console a little girl who had recently lost her mother, the story of "Dear Milli" was published in English in 1988. Set in the world of 1816 (the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars), this is the tale of a mother sending her child away for a few days in the forest for her own protection, because a terrible war had overrun their whole country. The title comes from the first words of the letter-story. It is a Christian magical story, as it includes the help of a guardian angel, and the protection of a very old man (in reality St. Joseph), in whose secluded forest home she lives for three days, keeping house and cooking for him. She was indeed well sheltered from war, as she learns upon returning to her village. Everything is changed; thirty years have elapsed, not three days, during her absence from home. She does find her mother, but she has become a very old woman. The final paragraph is worth quoting, a rare reconciliation of peace and death in the fairy tale:
All evening they sat happily together. Then they went to bed calmly and cheerfully, and the next morning the neighbors found them dead. They had fallen happily asleep, and between them lay Saint Joseph's rose in full bloom.
This essay began with a reference to a wicked king killing children in front of their mothers; now we are talking about a child protected from war by divine intervention. We need to take stock and think about the subject of children in the middle of war. While they have been victims of adults' cruelty, they have also defended themselves, managing even to transcend sexual boundaries, as the girl-soldier's story shows quite clearly (and feminist critics have noted these tales with pride). These examples are also international and intercultural, transcending even religious boundaries: there are stories of children facing war in the Jewish tradition as well as tales in the Arab and Russian tradition. Yet this study is very preliminary and should be the object of a book, perhaps a difficult one to research, not because the realm is so vast, but because even the basic tools are missing. I looked in vain for the topic of war as a motif or tale type in the Aarne-Thompson's classification. It seems that both war and sex are not very well represented in the famous Motif-index—just like gender (most of the classification mentions male heroes rather than female ones). I hope that these omissions will be remedied in the future through a thorough updating of the Index.
Through our research we noticed that the heroes of the fairy tales are certainly brave and generous in every way, but they are not patriotic or chauvinistic. The realm of the fairy tale is that of the individual exploit in a context that may be rooted in a certain culture, but not a specific country (where a child is taught to fight and die for his homeland). On the contrary, in a few stories the enemy of yesterday is reconciled with the foe, and the tale ends with celebrations of friendship. The heroics of violence and death are reserved for narratives in mythology and legend, where warriors fight for God and Country.
It is quite comforting to find in the corpus we have analyzed such a beautiful story as Benson's Peace Book. Through this tale we see that children can rebel against war. The little boy who did not want to die and said so to the world has very many brothers and sisters. His story is a love story in more ways than one (he has a friend his own age, a girl who agrees to take over his mission of peace should he fail), reminding us that there is a universal republic of childhood, in which wars are evil. There is in children a strong strain of idealism and love. Isaac Bashevis Singer, in a charming essay entitled "Are Children the Ultimate Literary Critic?" expresses the reactions of children to his stories, stressing their innate ethical sense:
Children think about and ponder such matters as justice, the purpose of life, the why of suffering. They often find it difficult to make peace with the idea that animals are slaughtered so that man can eat them. They are bewildered and frightened by death. They cannot accept the fact that the strong should rule the weak.
We find in folklore and literature the expression of feelings of revulsion against war, as Singer says simply and eloquently in the passage just quoted.
Children speak in fairy tales; it is not a question of adults giving them a voice, because the subject of war is so threatening that it is often difficult to idealize it. War and peace seem to force themselves into the narrative in such a way that it is difficult to either completely mask the fear or prevent a revulsion against destruction which irrepressibly comes to the surface sooner or later. This "obsessive wisdom," shared by Singer and many other authors, appears as well in one of the most original creative minds of literature: Leo Tolstoy. In his Fables and Fairy Tales,7 we can read an adaptation of a Russian folk tale, a little gem, "The Tale of Ivan the Fool … and the Old Devil," whose general theme is revealed through its very title. There is a war between the Devil and three brothers. Ivan the Fool, through his "foolish" cunning, manages to extract special powers from the Devil, such as the ability to make soldiers out of straw. But when these soldiers, made for brother Semyon, are used to conquer a kingdom and kill instead of playing music and dancing, Ivan refuses to make more soldiers:
Ivan shook his head.
"No more," he said, "I am not going to make you any more soldiers."
"Why not? You promised!"
"I did. But won't make anymore."
"Why won't you, you fool?"
"Because your soldiers killed a man. A few days ago, when I was plowing near the road, a woman came by with a coffin on her cart. She was wailing, and I asked her: "Who died?" She said: ‘Semyon the Soldier killed my husband in the war.’ I thought soldiers were for making music, but they have killed a man. I will give you no more."
This lively dialogue is no accident, and the result of much artistry, but of a kind that becomes only more manifest when we know something about the circumstances of Tolstoy's work with the fairy tale. At the end of his life, he told how, many years before (in 1886), after a reading of his "Ivan" to a group of peasants and children, he asked for the story to be repeated by one member of his audience. Tolstoy was delighted by the new way in which his story was retold; he had no false vanity towards the "reworking" of his story by a peasant. The new version varied considerably from his own. The final result, according to Tolstoy's glad admission, incorporated all the peasant's changes and wording: "the only way to write stories for the people" (xv).
It is impossible to disentangle the different strands of this happy folk tale synthesis. It incorporates a precious folk and child wisdom—and it seems that for both Tolstoy and later Singer the two were synonymous—that we can all the more appreciate now that we know its genesis. Section 10 of this tale once again brings the war-loving Semyon to the attack, with terrible weapons, ready to invade India; but the king of India has ideas of his own. He prepares an enormous army, drafting even unmarried women, and "invent[s] a method of flying through the air and dropping explosive bombs from above" (125). The women soldiers are actually flyers who "spray … bombs on the [enemy's] army like borax on cockroaches" (125).
But Tolstoy certainly gives peace a chance. As Ivan's realm is attacked by an army from abroad, his peaceful soldiers simply refuse to fight—even as the enemy plunders and kills. Eventually, Tolstoy's antidote to war wins out, through "hard work, generosity, loving care for other people, and indifference to the power of money. If war does come, it is met with passive resistance" (Butler 132).
Tolstoy's idealism certainly belongs in this study of war in the fairy tale. His stories were written for (as well as by) children and peasants. It is a publishing scandal that the 1962 American edition has long been out of print, modern as these tales sound in their loving passive resistance ideology. He should have the last word, as expressed in his writing about his childhood memories (in Aylmer Maude's Life of Tolstoy). We learn how his elder brother Nicholas had the secret for a universal brotherhood of peace and love, which he shared with his siblings.
… all men would become happy: there would be no more disease, no trouble, no one would be angry with anybody, all would love one another, and all would become ‘ant-brothers’ … sheltering ourselves … cuddling against one another … in the dark … a secret written on a green stick …
All of this might sound childish; but when he was over 70 Tolstoy wrote:
… the ideal of ant-brothers lovingly clinging to one another … of all mankind under the wide dome of heaven, has remained unaltered in me … the message which would destroy all evil in men and give them universal welfare, so I now believe that such truth exists and will be revealed to men and will give them all its promises.
For Tolstoy, and for many other creative geniuses, faithfulness to a childhood vision is a wellspring of high artistic achievement. In other words, the idealism of childhood becomes confirmed ideologically and artistically in adulthood. As we try to understand what is specifically "genuine" in folk and fairy tales we cannot fail to notice that folklore is truly international, with no national barriers. One looks in vain for specific national or "ethnic" characteristics. Attempts to make fairy tales the expression of national characters usually fail to convince the serious and objective scholars. The frontier-less international character of folklore clearly appears in the following metaphor from the Argentinean author Mario Muchnik, who writes that any generalization on national or group character contains "una semilla de odio" (a seed of hate) (quoted in Fernandez 145, n. 2). As a final statement on the subject of war and children in the fairy tale, I would like to state that the fairy tales I have discussed (and many others) do contain a seed of peace and love.
The research for this paper does not have the definitiveness characteristic of a finished book, because more and more tales could be discussed; yet I stand by the suggestions offered in my conclusion. A few words about psychoanalytic or psychological interpretations: I do not reject them in general, but in particular I do have reservations concerning some authors. For instance, I could have written, under Bettelheim's influence, that such characters as I found in my corpus express wish-fulfillments; consequently these fairy tale narratives are valid as "therapies" for today's children. Perhaps, but, once again, it is not that simple.
I tend to think that stories showing too much cruelty can be dangerous for the child's mental health. Children have "literal" minds, too often believing word for word the stories told by parents, teachers or elders. In terms of our subject—war and its evils—I do not believe that love of country can be instilled by stories in which children offer their lives to the "gods of war." Such "heroic education" belongs in the realm of what Alice Miller so aptly labeled "poisonous pedagogy," teaching blind obedience, with punishment to enforce conformity.
Like her, I believe that corporal punishment, violence and sexual abuse can only breed similar abuses from the child when grown up, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of cruelty and war. Tolstoy understood this nearly a century ago, and we should again listen to him. His ideological achievement, now unjustly neglected, is as "great" as his better-known novels.8
1. Among the best books presenting childhood war memories: Michael Foreman, War Boy. The author, an English artist who grew up in a village that saw much destruction from German bombings, recalls his memories in a book attractively written and formatted, with lavish color illustrations.
2. There is extensive documentation on the life of Mme d'Aulnoy, although nothing seems to have superseded the well-documented 1926 edition of Mme d'Aulnoy's Voyage d'Espagne by Fouché Delbosc and Jeanne Roche-Mazon's En marge de "l'Oiseau bleu" (1930).
3. Angela Carter is one of the best translators of Perrault.
4. In Aarne-Thompson's international classification, The Types of the Folktales, this is Type 884B, The Girl as Soldier.
5. One of the best treatments of the theme is found in the chapter "La fille-soldat" (The Girl as Soldier) in Velay-Vallantin, L'Histoire des contes 245-99.
6. Book two in the Chronicles of Narnia. This is not the only book of the series in which children wage war. In vol. 5, The Horse and His Boy, there is a an extended siege of a city, and a great battle between two armies, reminiscent of the wars of the Crusades between Christians and Arabs. The war is won by the children, thanks to an army of cats and horses. Similar wars also occur in Tolkien's Hobbit series.
7. Tolstoy first published his fairy tales, as presented in the 1962 English translation, in 1903 for the purpose of raising funds to aid the victims of an anti-Jewish pogrom in Kishinev, himself having written an open letter to the Tsar accusing his government of being directly responsible for the pogrom (from "Note on the Text" by the translators). The very publication of these stories was for Tolstoy an act of peace.
8. A different version of this article was read in Nazareth, Israel, during the International Holy Land Congress on Folklore and Culture, December 27, 1992-January 3, 1993. Publication herewith with permission.
Aarne-Thompson. The Types of the Folktales. Helsinki: Academia scientiarum fennica, 1964.
Benson, Bernard. The Peace Book. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.
Busnaq, Inea, ed. Arab Folktales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.
Butler, Francelia. "The Theme of Peace in Children's Literature." The Lion and the Unicorn 14 (1990): 132.
Carter, Angela. Sleeping Beauty & Other Favourite Fairy Tales. New York: Schoken Books, 1984.
d'Aulnoy, Marie-Catherine. Tales of the Fairies. Vol. IV: "The Little Good Mouse." London: Nicholson, 1707. The first anonymous translation from the 1697 original French edition.
Fernandez, James W. "Folklorists as Agents of Nationalism: Asturian Legends and the Problem of Identity." Fairy Tales and Society. Ed. Ruth B. Bottigheimer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
Flamain, Aynur, and Michèle Nicolas, ed. and transl. Contes de Turquie. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1977.
Foreman, Michael. War Boy. New York: Little Brown and Co., 1990.
Grotzsch, Robert. Fairy Tales and Fables from Weimar Days. Ed. and trans. Jack Zipes. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1989.
Lewis, Clive Staples. Prince Caspian. New York: Collier, 1970.
Maude, Aylmer. The Life of Tolstoy. 1930. Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Miller, Alice. For Your Own Good (Am Anfang war Erziehung, 1980). New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1989 (11th printing since 1983).
———. Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (Du sollst nichts merken, 1981). New York: Meridian Books, 1984, 1986.
Nesbit, Edith. The Deliverers of their Country. Illus. Lisbeth Zwerger. Salzburg: Verlag Neugbauer, 1985.
Pantheon Book of Russian Fairy Tales. From the collections of Alexandr Afanas'ev. Trans. Norbert Guterman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.
Planché, John Robinson, ed. and transl. Fairy Tales by the Countess d'Aulnoy. London: Routledge, 1885.
Roche-Mazon, Jeanne. En marge de "l'Oiseau bleu." Paris: Cahiers de la Quinzaine, 1930.
Röhrich, Lutz. Folktales and Reality. Trans. from the German by Peter Tokofsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. Stories for Children. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1985.
Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimm's Fairy Tales. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
———. Off with their Heads! Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Tolstoy, Leo. Fables and Fairy Tales. Trans. Ann Dunnigan. Illus. Sheila Greenwald. Foreword by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: New American Library, 1962.
Velay-Vallantin, Catherine. L'Histoire des contes. Paris: Fayard, 1992.
Jennifer Armstrong (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Armstrong, Jennifer. "On Reading about War and Peace." Five Owls 16, nos. 2-4 (2002): 29, 31.
[In the following essay, Armstrong advocates the benefits of introducing the concept of war to young readers, asserting that, "[l]iterature about war gives young readers the chance to think of what is just and unjust, to develop the capacity for philosophic inquiring doubt."]
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
Being a writer, I must acknowledge the richness of war as a subject for fiction. Great stories arise from conflict, and there can be no greater conflict than war. To whom do you owe greater loyalty? To your family, your friend, your religion, your ideals, your country? For what would you die? For what would you kill? These are soul-baring questions, and I think they are as important for children to consider as they are for adults.
Whenever I happen to mention that I am a fan of this or that war film or that I read such and so book about war, most of my friends recoil in distaste. They don't want to think about war, look at it, read about it, come anywhere close enough to get a whiff of it. To me, this smacks of denial, like averting your eyes from pictures of starving children in Africa. If we don't look at those pictures, how will we be moved to send relief? And if we don't encounter war in the safe way, by experiencing it through literature and art, how will we be moved to avoid the real thing? Reading about war doesn't imply an endorsement of it: it's a way of acknowledging part of the human experience that has been with us since the days of the Trojan War and long before. If you really want to teach young readers about peace, give them books about war.
There is much realistic literature for young readers about war, and I have read quite a bit of it, but I think I have never read anything quite as heart-wrenching as the true story, in picture book form, Faithful Elephants, by Yukio Tsuchiya. During the air bombardment of Tokyo in WWII, the dangerous animals in the zoo were deliberately killed, for fear that a bomb would damage the cages and release the wild creatures into the city. The friendly and faithful elephants were starved to death by their heartbroken keepers because they were too wily to be poisoned in their food and their hides were too tough for lethal injection. Upon the elephants' deaths, the sobbing keepers "raised their fists to the sky and implored ‘Stop the war! Stop the war! Stop all wars!’" The phrase "innocent victim" is completely inadequate to this piteous scenario. Who ever imagines, when a war begins and patriotic fervor runs hot, that such consequences are inevitable?
But in fact, innocent victims now make up the greater casualty figures: according to the United Nations, more children are hurt and killed in today's wars than are soldiers. Any child, encountering the death or injury of another child through fiction will be shaken. The murder of Hector's children in the Iliad can only evoke fear and disgust. The Iliad, of course, is one of the great foundation works of Western literature, and Rosemary Sutcliff's adaptation Black Ships before Troy is a fine introduction for young readers. In robust prose, it retains much of the sharp and telling details of Homer's poetry. Honor, courage, and heroic virtue are all here, and an anxious parent might worry that this is beginning to feel uncomfortably like a glorification of war. But here are also cowardice, and sullen resentment, and foolhardiness, and battle-gore, and death, and vainglory. A child or teen would be right to marvel at the sheer waste of life described in this epic, and question how Helen could possibly have been worth so much death and destruction, or why the sulking Achilles was so revered.
A prolonged and inexplicable war between the ancient (and grown-up) Greeks and Trojans might feel pretty remote to today's young reader. Adem's Cross, by Alice Mead, zooms the focus right up to the present. In Kosovo, Albanian teenagers watch MTV at home; at school, their eyes burn from tear gas, and they wait in anguished silence as their teachers are beaten unconscious by Serb police. Adem's sister, Fatmira, is shot and killed while reading a poem at a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration. This is now. This is what it means. AK (Delecorte, 1992), by Peter Dickinson, puts automatic weapons into the hands of a very young Paul Kagomi and his fellow boy-guerillas in a composite African country fighting a civil war. These books are frightening. Kids get killed. This stuff really happens.
How do we tell that to very young children? Children who saw the World Trade Towers collapse on television have been baptized by fire, but there are books which introduce the concept of war less harshly. The Little Ships: The Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II, by Louise Borden, is one such example. The war is acknowledged but distant. The narrator, a girl in the fishing village of Deal, on the English Channel, can hear the bombs in France, and she worries about her brother, who is fighting over there. But this is not a story about the war per se, but about the remarkable armada of tugs, fishing boats, ferries, and yachts pressed into service to help evacuate Allied soldiers stranded with their backs against the sea at Dunkirk. The tone is somber and serious, and when the narrator and her father reach Dunkirk, it is a fearful scene. But, ultimately, it is a story of triumph and one of Britain's most treasured stories.
I sat straight up
when the Prime Minister thundered his grand speech.
I was glad that Mr. Churchill didn't keep
his words in his hands and in his eyes
in the way of Deal fishermen.
At first he had thought
only a few men could be saved
from the beaches of Dunkirk.
He was wrong.
The newspaper later said
over 338,000 men came home.
But I think Mr. Churchill knew all along
that our country could do it,
if everyone pulled together.
That's why he sent all those big
And the little ships,
like our Lucy,
In books about war for young children, the story almost always ends this way—not necessarily with a great heroic rescue, such as the brave little ships of Dunkirk, but often with small, individual victories. In The Cello of Mr. O, by Joan Cutler, a solitary man plays his cello each day in the bombed market square of an unnamed city, to show that he will not let the ongoing war keep him cowering in his apartment. In books for young children, such acts of peaceful defiance do not result in death, as in Adem's Cross, but are redemptive and hopeful. It is not until readers grow older that their books admit that the opposite is often true.
In my own work for older readers, I've placed characters in war's path. In The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan (Knopf, 1996) I wrote about an Irish immigrant girl trying to remain neutral while the American Civil War swirls around her in Washington, D.C. Neutrality is seldom an option, however, when the war is right there. War forces people to make terrible choices. And from a purely objective point of view, the writer's point of view, this is a good thing: this is where great and moving stories come from. In addition to this novel, I also co-wrote a Holocaust memoir, In My Hands (Knopf, 1999), with a rescuer, Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish woman who was a teenager when she was forced to begin making such choices.
After thinking about war and children together for a number of years, working on those books, I decided that I would like to put together a collage of sorts. I solicited stories about children and war from my writer friends, and put together the anthology Shattered: Stories of Children and War. Some stories are front line stories, some are on the home front, and some take place well after the war has ended. Two of the stories, which I find most compelling in the collection, I placed as bookends: the first story is a memoir by Palestinian author, Ibtisam Barakat, of fleeing with her family during the Six Day War; the last story, by Gloria D. Miklowitz, is about Jewish children, survivors of the Holocaust, landing in Palestine.
Yesterday, as the war finished its first day, we became refugees. The fires, air raids, bullets, and bombardment ruined many homes and burned many crop fields. They drove us away in the middle of the night like a nation of terrified deer. We all knew that someone wanted us dead yesterday. So we ran to the caves and then through the fields that would take us to the second day, and to a road through which we could cross to safety in a neighboring country.
This is the opening of Barakat's The Second Day (and the opening of the book). A child's serene life is shattered by strangers. Someone wanted her dead. Politics doesn't enter a child's worldview. Stripped of justifications, war is only brutal violence that indiscriminately wounds families, small children. In Miklowitz's Hope, we meet orphaned children, sick, frightened, and almost catatonic from their time in concentration camps, in the hold of a freighter in the Mediterranean. They are among the fewer than ten percent of European Jewish children who have survived Hitler's genocide. Hans has taken on the role of big brother to a wordless, skeletal little girl named Sonya. In the dark, amid the groans and whimpers of other survivors, he tells her,
"When we get to Palestine, I will see that we stay together," he whispered, thinking that she would be his sister now.
"Maybe they'll send us to a farm, maybe where they grow oranges. It will be good. No barbed wire around us. No soldiers with guns. You will forget and grow healthy and strong."
When a child's most treasured fantasy is simply to be on a farm where they grow oranges, you know this child has lived through terrible things. It breaks my heart that the rescue of these children in Hope will bring us to the bombardment of the children in The Second Day, back to the beginning of the collection.
These two stories worked perfectly as bookends, but all of the stories in this collection spoke to me. At the time I was selecting stories, I had no idea Americans would soon find themselves buying up all the maps of Afghanistan, following along in the news to see where our newest war was happening. Suzanne Fisher Staples sent me a story, Faizabad Harvest, 1980, about Afghanistan under Soviet occupation, and it contains what I consider to be the molten core of this book.
In the weeks that followed, the helicopters came three more times, dropping from their underbellies a form of death that was unspeakable. Scattered about the hillside were toys, cameras, and watches—gifts that families in our village longed for but could never afford. Amina warned us to touch nothing on the ground. Every mother warned her children.
But one day, two boys slipped away when their mothers were not watching. They climbed up into the hills, avoiding the places where Hedayat and Hassan and the others stood guard. Mahsood, who was my age, picked up a wristwatch he found lying under a small bush. He reasoned that it could not have fallen from the sky and landed under a bush, and that it must be a real watch. The next instant the watch exploded, shattering his hands and putting out his eyes.
War can be made by deliberately tricking children into believing that bombs are toys and expensive treasures. Perhaps this is less shocking now than it was before September 11, but I don't think so. It still shocks me.
What doesn't shock me are the wars I encounter in fantasy novels. The Redwall books, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia chronicles, and Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy all contain battles, mayhem and all-out war and, with few exceptions, they don't affect me much. Certainly no one is expected to shed a tear when ferocious enemies—orcs, piratical water rats, goblins, or ogres—meet their doom at the point of a heroic mouse's sword (and the enemies always suffer enormous battlefield casualties). Inevitably, one or more cherished friends of the protagonist's will perish in battle, and I have cried over those deaths. But because these are fantasies, because they are explicitly not real, they don't always pack the punch that realistic war stories do; at least this is so for me. I suspect it may often be the case with children.
Children and teens may very well be frightened, confused, or heart-broken experiencing war through realistic literature. But if they never have a vicarious experience of war's destructiveness, they may not be appropriately cautious, when they are adults, about getting into one. Says Prince Andrew, in Tolstoy's War and Peace:
The best generals I have known were … stupid or absentminded men…. Not only does a good army commander not need any special qualities, on the contrary, he needs the absence of the highest and best human attributes—love, poetry, tenderness, and philosophic inquiring doubt. He should be limited, firmly convinced that what he is doing is very important (otherwise he will not have sufficient patience), and only then will he be a brave leader. God forbid that he should be humane, should love, or pity, or think of what is just and unjust.
Children are naturally idealistic and righteous. They have a fine-tuned sense of justice. Literature about war gives young readers the chance to think of what is just and unjust, to develop the capacity for philosophic inquiring doubt. It gives them the chance to contemplate the alternative to peace. When they read Faithful Elephants and cry out in dismay, "But it's not right!" they are absolutely correct. It's not. This, it seems to me, is the preferable attitude with which to greet war, not "It's inevitable!"
I will continue to read literature about war, and I am already writing about it again, because although war shows us the worst that we can do, it also shows us the best.
Geoff Fox (essay date December 1985)
SOURCE: Fox, Geoff. "Pro Patria: Young Readers and the ‘Great War.’" Children's Literature in Education 16, no. 4 (December 1985): 233-47.
[In the following essay, Fox discusses how the British children's magazine The Boy's Own Paper influenced the way English children viewed World War I.]
If you are teaching one of those awkward adolescent groups where the prevailing ethos wavers from the aggressive to the blasé, it is tempting to try a "War Unit." Maybe you can horrify them into interest.
There are dangers for the unwary in teaching War, of course. When I worked in a New England high school in the late sixties—a school praised in Time magazine for its liberalism and innovation—a colleague in social studies was hauled swiftly before Authority when he introduced songs protesting the Vietnam War. The topic is just as volatile today. In 1982, an American school board banned The Diary of Anne Frank because "It's a real Downer." In many British schools, a teacher bringing to a class Raymond Briggs's When the Wind Blows or his satirical account of the Falklands War, The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, might expect the phone to ring that evening.
So we settle for more distant fields; and of all these, few are more visited (in schools in the United Kingdom, at least) than those of the First World War. It's a good war to demonstrate that we are, on balance, against War; especially as our side won and there can be no question of sour grapes. It has a lot of the best tunes (Oh, What a Lovely War! is a popular school play), some memorable poetry, and one or two good novels and autobiographies. The pity of war is exposed in terms of the individual soldier, more manageable for adolescents to contemplate than the elimination of civilisation, which not only increases their sense of impotence, but also undermines their faith in the long-term value of the examination system. School anthologies for this age group commonly include a section on War, with a ration of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon.1 Few young readers of the time would have come across poems by soldiers during the War itself, though my mother once told me how she and her classmates wept together over the dead Rupert Brooke and "If I should die…." Most of the work of Owen and Blunden was not published until after the Armistice, and Sassoon, Graves, and Sorley, for example, can have reached few schoolrooms. To discover some of the poetry children in Britain, and indeed throughout the Empire, were offered during the war, I worked through several popular magazines of the period. The Boy's Own Paper provided the richest yield, and I have consequently drawn heavily upon the B.O.P., as it is still affectionately remembered. Certain themes recur in the poems, articles, and stories of these wartime publications, and these make convenient headings for this discussion.
School and War
Implicit in many of the poems and articles is the message that going to fight in Europe was an extension of one's school career. School uniforms were exchanged for khaki or navy. Many of the images used to describe fighting are drawn from the games field; and images used to describe games are drawn from the battle field. In 1915, a B.O.P. article entitled Football and the War: Representative Players Who Are at the Front begins:
War is the serious, vital thing of which all our games of antagonistics are but imitations: imitations designed in part by way of amusement and recreation, but also essentially as part of the process for preparing the individual, as a mode of training and hardening him, for the real, grim business of warfare. In all the thirty-odd years that I have played and written about Rugby football, I have insisted that a man's first duty is to make himself fit to serve his country should the need ever arise, and that the Rugby game was one of the best forms of exercise by which he could attain that fitness. The need has arisen now in our time as it may never arise again; and I do not shirk the inference to be drawn from what I have written, that every Rugby football-player who can satisfy military requirements should place his services at the disposal of those who are responsible for securing the safety of our land and upholding the honour of the British Empire.
The writer, W. T. A. Beare, was a prominent Rugby administrator. He continues:
It is fitting that those heroes of our game who have already fought and bled should have first mention. Though they have not all gained International honours at football, they have attained to a higher, nobler renown; and lovers of the game will hold their names in reverent memory through the years to come, when, as a result of the great work which they and their comrades will have accomplished in this unsought War, Britain shall stand higher and mightier than ever amongst the nations.
The B.O.P. was avidly read by working and lower middle class boys (the Editor always warmly welcomed boys' sisters as readers too). My father used to tell me that he read B.O.P. from cover to cover; it is difficult to know what he made of the almost exclusive emphasis on the public schools from his desk at The Oswald Road Elementary School in a modest suburb of Manchester. (It may be worth reminding American readers that British English is at its most perverse in the usage of "public" in this context; it means "private.") The rank-and-file tend to be mentioned only when, with a whiff of mild surprise on the Editor's part, they win a Victoria Cross; or when "Tommy's" unfailing courage and good humour are celebrated, often through cartoons.
Frank Ellis contributed several poems linking School and Service throughout the war. The last verse of "For the Honour of the School" (B.O.P., 1915) gives the flavour of his work:
"For the Honour of the Regiment" the soldier's heart
"For the Honour of the Service" the lifeboat rides the
"For the Honour of the School" the boy will nobly
play the game,
His honour keep unsullied, untarnished keep her fame
"They gave us a good drubbing, and we'd like to pay
As a rally cry is very good, but somewhat it doth lack.
But when enthusiasms wane and ardours all are cool,
Let each boy be responsive to "The Honour of the
In the same year, in "He Did His Best" he reworks a theme found in all the magazines. There is praise for the steady plodder rather than the exhibitionist:
No prize was his when the prize-day came;
The chairman called out another's name.
But all through the term he stuck to his books,
And often was seen with studious looks.
They asked him sometimes to come and play,
But he always answered, "Another day!"
He was low on the list, it must be confessed,
But we all of us knew that he did his best.
They lost the battle, but did their best;
They were far outnumbered—you know the rest.
But each like a hero stuck to his post,
A handful of heroes against the host.
Round the colours one by one they died,
And the captain saw them with noble pride;
Till he, too, fell with a ball in his breast,
Saying, "Good-bye, men; we did our best!"
Cheerful endurance was admired throughout the War. In 1917, boys were told of "The officer in camp [who] was always bright and cheerful, and when asked for his secret said, ‘When he felt a tendency to low spirits, he took a cup of cocoa; not the cocoa of the breakfast table, but K-O K-O (Keep on keeping on).’"
The link between school games and war was a favourite theme of another of B.O.P.'s regular poets, John Lea. "Peace and War" appeared in 1915. No doubt cricket, most subtle and sublime of English games, would be incomprehensible to the Hun. Certainly it was worth fighting for:
The light of the sunset fell warm on the meadow,
He stood at the wicket, a slogger of fame;
The sky overhead never hinted at shadow,
And yet with what swiftness it came!
I hear, like an echo, his voice gladly calling;
I see on his face the bright rapture it wore:
"Last innings! And now, as the darkness is falling,
We stand at the top of the score!"
He shouldered his bat, and the game being ended,
We drew out the stumps. Ah, what fancies will
For now, with our laughter, seems solemnly blended
The throb of a far-away drum.
He walked at my side through the dew-scented clover,
As homeward we strolled in the gathering shade,
And spoke of great things now that schooldays were
And sensible plans he had made.
His heart was aglow with a manly ambition;
His thought too sincere to be ruled by a whim.
But hark! Ever louder, the drum, with its mission
Was beating, was beating for him!
He answered the call, like a son of the nation;
And light on his face the young energy shone.
I saw him depart with his corps from the station;
A wave—a far shout—he was gone!
And here is a letter: "Forgive me for scrawling.
We've had a close game; but the din and the roar
Are over, and now, as the darkness is falling,
We stand at the top of the score!"
The Call to Arms
The throb of that summoning drum was often heard in the B.O.P.'s pages. The tenor of the poems and articles is that of course, every boy worth his salt wanted to get out there before the show was over; in short, to secure a place in the team. The bleakest fate was to be, for some reason, unacceptable: Constance Smith in the 1917-18 volume of B.O.P., wrote a poem simply called, "Unfit":
Not his to bear the battle brunt,
To hear the deep-mouthed cannon shake
The troubled air on Flanders front.
Not his to take
A gun and bravely do his part,
With steadfast eye and fearless heart.
And yet in dream
He treads where transport wagons are
Lining those blackened fields afar.
He sees the deadly bayonet's gleam
In fancy hears the shrapnel's scream,
Charges across the thunderous zone,
And with one splendid deed has made
Th'applause of men his own! …
The mirage fades away!
He sees the light upon his books,
On meadowed peace and beauty looks,
And knows that day by day
'Mid these quiet scenes his life must be.
To die for England gallantly
Fortune did not on him confer—
He can but live and work for her!
Worse than being unfit was being unworthy. In a story called "The Smart Set," (B.O.P., 1915), the School Captain of Stonehurst College asks three trustworthy chaps in the Shell to deal with an awkward problem. "‘It concerns the honour of the school deeply, and I know you'd do anything to save the old place from degradation.’ ‘Ra-a-ather.’ was the emphatic answer." The problem is that "‘there's a set of silly young bounders in the school—who think it's clever and ‘doggish,’ to go out playing cards at a beastly low saloon in the village. They smoke cheap cigarettes, gamble on the turf, and hobnob with all the riff-raff of the countryside. Now that spells only one word for fellows of their age and experience—ruin!’" Inevitably, the bounders are caught by our heroes, but when carpeted in front of The Doctor, the ringleader shows a decent streak. He foresees expulsion for himself, but pleads: "‘Well, sir, you said before that I would have to go, but it wouldn't mean so much to me as it would to the others. Young Briggs, I know, would have to go into an office in the City, instead of the Army.’"
Apart from implicit prompting to join "our gallant little force in Europe," there were sometimes direct appeals. These were rarely made to the public schoolboys, a huge proportion of whom did indeed volunteer. The boys of the Empire—Canada, Australia, and New Zealand particularly—also responded to the call to the colours. John Lea, in B.O.P. 1915, celebrates the loyalty of Britain's sons from over the seas:
The Drum—the Drum—one August day
Spoke in its own assertive way,
And Men stood hushed to hear anew
The solemn call of its low tattoo.
In London town the roll began,
But over the waves it quickly ran,
Adding a voice to seas that roar
On Nova Scotia's misty shore.
The tattoo echoes, verse by verse, across the "Broad St. Lawrence," climbing "The Laurelled Heights of Abraham," until its "urgent call" is heard among the "Battalions of Columbian pines," when,
Scarce could the martial sound intrude
Upon their silent solitude,
When rousing echoes fell afar
On Australasia's coral bar.
It reached the Straits, and northward ran;
It swept the plains of Hindustan,
Then storming southward, beat its way
From Suez Town to Simon's Bay.
Thus round the world as swift as dawn
The message of the Drum had gone,
And ere its earliest echo died
Came the response in love and pride:
"Mother of Nations, east and west,
We gladly, proudly, give our best
To follow afar through pain and woe
The freest flag the world can show.
We hear the call of the Empire's Drum!
Mother of Nations, see!—we come!"
The Editor regularly printed letters from the Anzac forces, some of whom dropped in to see him at the B.O.P. office. In 1917-18, the colour pull-out was entitled "Badges of Our Overseas Forces" (earlier in the war, two of the pull-outs had been full colour pictures of the football shirts and cricket caps of "some of our most famous public schools"). The serial story opposite the illustrated badges was "The Mystery of Ah Jim, A Story of the Chinese Underworld, and of Piracy and Adventure on Eastern Seas." Orientals in magazines of the period tend to be shifty, inscrutable, or simply criminal. The only people from exotic foreign parts you could really trust were, in fact, those from outposts of the Empire—and some of the most vivid illustrations in the B.O.P. are of the troops from such remote regions. The ghurkas were a favourite: they are photographed smilingly sharpening the scimitar blades of their khukris; and also illustrated in the charge, khukris clenched between their teeth, eyes rolling wildly with a berserker fury. A German helmet rolls on the trench parapet beneath their feet, while in the foreground, a rifle is still in mid-air, having been dropped by a fleeing Hun, whose immediate prospects are poor. The same artist, Stanley L. Wood, illustrated an equally rampant troop of the Bengal Lancers at full gallop in "Going Into Action." Again, a German helmet rolls beneath the flying hooves.
The Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.) was a very junior branch of the Services, yet it had a considerable romantic appeal to young readers. Even in the thirties, entire magazines were devoted to the exploits of First World War aviators. (The creator of the indestructible Biggles, Captain W. E. Johns, a former R.F.C. officer, was the founding editor of one of them.) G. R. S.'s poem "Jimmy" appeared in The Captain in 1917. G. R. S. must have known, as some of his readers would have known, that the life expectancy of an R.F.C. pilot at the front was no more than three weeks. Perhaps this unspoken knowledge is one more reason why Jimmy deserves the reader's adoration:
Jimmy gets his "Wings" to-night,
Let the bumper flow!
Jove! but he's a living wonder!
He will cleave the skies asunder!
British to the core, by thunder,
Fearless of the foe!
Jimmy masters all machines
With unerring skill.
He's the sturdiest of smiters,
And, by all the Bristol Fighters,
He will strafe the Hunnish blighters—
Strafe them with a will!
Jimmy's booked for overseas,
Eagerly he waits.
Then he'll give some demonstrations,
And some staggering sensations,
Followed up by decorations
In the Palace gates!
Jimmy's just the jolliest sport
One could wish to see!
Golden conquests lie before him
Where's the Hun that dare ignore him?
Here's his health! for we adore him,
In the earlier years of the war, the B.O.P. dealt largely with factual deeds of heroism, although by 1915 one of the serial stories (running alongside such titles as "In the Power of the Pygmies, A Tale of the Great African Forest") was A. L. Haydon's "For England and the Right! A Tale of the War in Belgium." Readers were regularly offered glimpses of real-life daring, sometimes on the part of boys of their own age. In 1915, a B.O.P. article on "War Medals Won by Boys" recalled bravery from earlier conflicts, for at a time when "the Mothers of Britain are asked to give their sons, and the boys and young men of Britain are nobly responding to the call of the Motherland, some account of the medallic recompenses gained by boys, in conflict against the foe, will be of more than passing interest." In the same year, the Editor notes that "The present war in the Continent abounds in instances of young boys who are serving with the colours, or who otherwise find opportunity for the display of their patriotic ardour." Short reports, accompanied by illustrations, included exploits of French, Belgian, and Russian boys. "One of the Belgian Boy Scouts who has been mentioned in despatches is Georges Leysen, of Liege; his age is eighteen. Young Leysen has captured eleven spies, killed a Uhlan, and captured another, and performed several notable journeys carrying despatches." An artist's impression in the same article shows a young French boy, tied to a tree, facing the revolvers of the "Bosches." He refused to cooperate, and "paid the penalty with his life, his secret unrevealed."
There was also a regular feature entitled "VC Heroes of the War," and specially drawn illustrations with captions like "A Dash for the Trenches—British Troops Repelling an attack by the Germans" or "A Deed That Won The Albert Medal." The deed in question was the astonishing rescue of a pilot who had wedged his machine 300 feet up a wireless mast, from which he was extricated by three sailors with cool heads for heights. There is an amused account of an engine-driver from Alsace who took his trainload of 700 Germans over the border into France and delivered them up as prisoners. One of the most daring exploits reported on "The Editor's Page" (B.O.P. 1917) was that of Walter Greenway, a reformed housebreaker who became a spy in Mesopotamia, posing as a deaf-mute Turkish beggar. Greenway's last achievement, before he was carried off by dysentery, was to enter the arsenal in Baghdad in a stolen German uniform and blow it to smithereens. The Editor reflects, "The story of his devotion to the country that treated him none too kindly will live on, however, so long as the Great War is remembered. Was not his an act of heroism as splendid as any conceived by the greatest writer of romance?"
There is little sign of jingoistic propaganda directed at the enemy in the B.O.P., although The Captain was more willing to express cheerful satisfaction at the slaughter of a few more Huns. The reasons for the conflict were largely ignored in the latter years of the War.
The Germans, though often seen as brave fighters, nevertheless stoop to tactics the British deplored and could barely comprehend. The Prussian way of waging war by terror is reflected in an illustration of an incident in 1915. The artist C. A. Wilkinson depicts a German submarine standing off a British cargo vessel, while the British sailors are rowing away in the life-boats. Merchantmen were not fair prey for a naval vessel, and such an attack was regarded as an appalling crime in the early years of the War. Beneath the picture's title, "Ten Minutes to Quit," is the explanatory note, "The German policy of ‘Frightfulness’; an enemy submarine, prior to the more drastic orders issued, ordering the crew of a British Merchant vessel to abandon their ship preparatory to its being blown up."
Even in the last year of the war, however, the Germans are described as gallant opponents, though inclined to be devious. Sheila Braine writes (B.O.P. 1918) in a conversational tone superficially similar to some of Sassoon's poems which, by this time, she might have read. "The Sentinel" begins:
Prisoners? Ay, we were that, sure—my mate, old
Jim, and I;
Caught on patrol duty, one night, when the winter's
Hadn't a star nor a gleam of light, so we missed
the homeward way;
Stumbled upon the Bosches, we did—a mix-up,
as you might say,
And we came off second-best, at least I did, and
poor old Jim,
Which meant some weeks in a prison camp, with
the Huns, for me and him.
Jim and the narrator effect a daring escape, but came upon two German sentries standing "tall and stiff as a ramrod" near the Belgian frontier,
So with sticks for our only weapon, we crept up
Where the sentry stood, not moving, with his head
a bit inclined,
Sprang on him both together like a flash, did Jim
And what do you think we found? Why—'Twas
nothing but a tree!
The stump of an old willow, dressed up in soldier's
Enough in the mist or twilight to deceive a fellow's
And the sentry on the right, too, he looked about
Take it from me, the Huns know every trick in
the fighting game.
Individual personalities—whether generals or politicians—are not singled out for vilification. The Germans are criticised for "their vaunted and often overdone ‘thoroughness,’" which stands in sharp contrast to the essentially amateur and sporting approach of the British. The enemy have an alarming number of spies at their disposal (witness the eleven caught by the young Georges Leysen mentioned earlier); but these are inevitably no match for our side, especially if they are foolish enough to practise their skullduggery in the vicinity of a public school. These themes reflect adult literature of the early War years. Prussian efficiency was strongly condemned as the triumph of the machine over the spirit, and spymania was widespread.
The worst thing the enemy does is to play rather underhand tricks which stem from minds so tortuously different from the British that they come close to success, as Sheila Braine's "Dangerous Music" (B.O.P. 1918) demonstrates:
Give you a tune?—That I gladly will;
What shall it be, lad—say?
There's one would have sent me aloft for sure,
But I guess 'twas my lucky day.
What do I mean by that, you ask?—
I vowed I would yarn no more
Of the life we led on the plains of France,
And the tricks of this queer old war;
But if you will have it—our little lot
Marched into a ruined town,
Destroyed on purpose—a cruel sight,
That city of fair renown.
Everything smashed and battered in
Except, in the market square,
We entered a fine old damaged house,
And found a piano there.
‘Boys, they've forgotten to bash this in!
I'll see what it's like,’ I cried.
Our Captain saw me, and thundered, ‘Stop!
Don't play till you've looked inside.’
I sprang from my broken chair at that,
And quickly I raised the lid;
When I saw the bomb that was nestling there,
My word, I was glad I did!
One little note of ‘The Long, Long Trail,’
The tune I had meant to try,
And we would have gone on a trail ourselves,
In bits—to the wintry sky!
Ah! well, the moral is, ‘Use your sense,’
When Fritz has been round your way;
And with luck you may live to see Fritzy downed
And victory—some fine day!
Death and the Trenches
In the early part of the war, to die in battle was almost to be envied. The account of the death of Captain Talbot Reed of the 67th Punjabis (son of Talbot Baines Reed, author of The Fifth Form at St. Dominic's and many other early B.O.P. serials) concludes, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Captain Talbot Reed went out with honour!" Frank Ellis offered this tribute to the fallen, entitled "The Old School's Roll of Honour" (B.O.P. 1915):
"Oh, it is great for our Country
To die," sang the singer of old;
And some of our boys died in trenches,
Their bodies are under the mould.
Old boys of the school that we go to,
How barren our lives seem, how poor!—
And yet, perhaps, had we been older,
We, too, might have fought, might endure!
There is many a name written on it,
Of boys that we used to know;
They heard the call of their Country,
And forth to the Flag they'd go.
They marched in the ranks with the others,
They stood up straight and tall;
They're the Old School's Roll of Honour,
And the Old School's proud of them all!
Later in the war, references to the difficult physical conditions are made. The B.O.P., educative as ever, continued to devote much space to imparting military information, and in an article on German defences entitled "Some facts about the ‘Pill-Box’", the Editor records (B.O.P., 1917-18):
But, as with every other device used against them, they soon got the measure of the innovation, and then, as one Canadian hero said at Passchendaele, ‘we swallowed the pill-boxes, pills and all.’
He concludes his account with an anecdote about the capture of a pill-box which at least acknowledges that such conflicts differed somewhat from a hard-fought game of rugger:
At the great battle of Broodseinde our tanks subdued and practically walked over the enemy's pill-boxes, which had temporarily checked the splendid advance of some of our Midland lads and New Zealanders. The machine-gun fire from the concrete walls ahead had caused a check and a gap, when through our splendid boys, knee-deep in mud, there lurched and waddled a tank or two. These ranged up close enough to the pill-boxes to fire broadsides at their concrete and to machine-gun their loop-holes. Very soon, through a hole in the wall, the thrusting of a white flag told its own tale. As Tommy facetiously said, "It put the lid on Papa Pill-Box!"
Charles Ingram Stanley contributed several poems in the final two years of the War which admitted the wretchedness of the actual fighting, whilst emphasising the rich reward which awaited the fallen in Heaven. His tone sometimes has that sense of wry comedy and good humour under acute difficulty characteristic of the songs of the First World War, though his language is less vigorous:
When Jack was a soldier and marched
away to fight on the Flemish soil
He found that war was a ghastly thing
of vigil and pain and toil;
That when he wasn't in mud to his eyes, 'twas
blood that his khaki bore—
As many an ordinary chap has found before.
More commonly, Stanley softens his picture of the battlefield, as in "Any Soldier":
A little mound upon Flanders, and a little cross 'neath
No name, no words that might tell us the way that
he earned his scars,
A soon-filled gap in the trenches—somewhere a homestead
And a soldier released from duty who stands at his
The Captain was more graphic, with a full-page illustration (titled ‘Stuck in the Somme Mud’) of four Tommies improvising a hoist with rifles, webbing, and spades to rescue a comrade. The caption explains:
A soldier has slipped into a particularly soft spot en route to the trenches. He has become firmly stuck in the soft clinging soil, so much so that his efforts to liberate himself are quite unavailing. A rope is fastened to his arms and planks are pushed into the oozy hole. On these the rescues slip and pant as they haul away at the unfortunate man. No result is obtained until others with spades begin to dig and loosen the mud. Then gradually the upward pressure tells, and the man is carried, not a little exhausted, to firmer ground.
Post-Script: A Broader Context
I have suggested that if teachers decide to look at the well-known poetry of the Great War with their students, it might usefully be placed in the context which young readers of the day would have known.2
Another excellent resource is a fascinating selection of poetry written by women during the war years, edited by Catherine Reilly under the title Scars upon My Heart. The anthology corrects any notion that war is a masculine preserve (for either writers or readers), for it provides a varied picture of the experience of women during the Great War and often illuminates the lives, and deaths, of the soldiers themselves.
Four poems are included by Jessie Pope, a frequent contributor to Punch and The Daily Mail whose patriotic verses prompted Owen's "Dulce et Decorum est…." The following lines from "The Call" reflect her attitude:
Who's for the trench—
Are you, my laddie?
Who'll follow French—
Will you, my laddie?
Who's fretting to begin,
Who's going out to win?
And who wants to save his skin—
Do you, my laddie?
Few of the poets adopt such a stance; far more characteristic would be Helen Hamilton's
(How I dislike you!)
Dealer in white feathers …
or Ruth Comfort Mitchell's graphic account of the career of "Billy, the Soldier Boy" who, after the brave days of his recruitment, finds himself at the front:
Soon he is one with the blinding smoke of it—
Volley and curse and groan:
Then he has done with the knightly joke of it—
It's rending flesh and bone.
There are pain-crazed animals a-shrieking there
And a warm blood stench that is a-reeling there;
He fights like a rat in a corner—
Billy, the Soldier Boy!
Readers familiar with children's literature may be intrigued to find the names of Edith Nesbit and Eleanor Farjeon among the contributors. The simple strength of Farjeon's "Easter Monday (In Memorian E. T.)," dated April, 1917, would surely prove readily accessible to young readers:
In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now—
It was such a lovely morning’. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’
That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.
1. A recent anthology which provides a much wider selection than usual is Poetry of The Great War (Macmillan, U.K., 1985) by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions. I am grateful to Dr. Hibberd for his advice during the preparation of this article.
2. The problem is, of course, availability. I would be glad to supply readers with a small selection (four pages) of poems to supplement those in the article. (Address in the front matter of the journal.)
Reilly, Catherine, ed., Scars upon My Heart. London: Virago, 1981.
Kathleen Dale Colarusso (essay date winter 1986)
SOURCE: Colarusso, Kathleen Dale. "World War II and Its Relevance to Today's Adolescents." ALAN Review 13, no. 2 (winter 1986): 12-14, 70.
[In the following essay, Colarusso notes how children's novels about World War II can assist with juvenile conflict resolution, commenting that, "[b]y reading about others who have dealt with constant fear and anxiety during war, adolescents today can obtain some insights into their own feelings and options for coping with and attempting to prevent situations of conflict."]
Adolescents today have only a fuzzy view of World War II. They see it as ancient history or an event glorified and romanticized in old John Wayne movies. They do not understand what Nazi Germany was like or why the war was fought. World War II was a significant global conflict which changed countless peoples' views of the nature of man and society. Particularly significant to adolescents today, in our age of global tensions, are the profound effects a government at war can have on a person's daily existence. These effects are especially heightened for adolescents since they are already going through an uncertain period in search of their personal identities. By reading about others who have dealt with constant fear and anxiety during war, adolescents today can obtain some insights into their own feelings and options for coping with and attempting to prevent situations of conflict.
In The Other Way Round by Judith Kerr, Ceremony of Innocence by James Forman, Mischling, Second Degree by Ilse Koehn, and Night by Elie Wiesel, young Europeans are affected in different ways by World War II. For some it has a direct, devastating effect; for others the effect is less obvious but ever-constant and oppressive. Since the young people are affected in a variety of ways, they use different methods to deal with their individual situations. In all instances, however, philosophical questions concerning the nature of man, the meaning of existence, the purpose of life and the importance of support or nonsupport of one's government are considered. And, of course, since each book is set in Europe during the War, information unfolds concerning policies of the governments involved, the major battles fought and the daily frustrations caused by such actions as rationing and restrictions on freedoms.
The novel The Other Way Round presents a particularly personal view of a girl's attempt to grow up during the war. Anna and her family are early refugees from Nazi Germany. In 1933, after Anna's father, a noted Jewish writer, comes out publicly and strongly against Hitler's regime, he and his family are forced to flee to Switzerland, France and finally to England, where the novel takes place.
In 1940 Anna is a typical 15-year-old whose normal adolescent insecurity is compounded by being an outcast in a foreign country. Since her parents are struggling financially and are forced to place her in boarding schools and with friends, she feels "like a parcel, to be tossed about, handed from one person to another, without knowing who (will) be holding her next" (p. 8). Anna, therefore, sees the effects of the war, in a personal way, as a direct assault on her attempts to lead a happy, normal life. She even begins to blame herself for the things that have happened. She feels unlucky because in every country she has lived, there has been suffering. She tells her brother, "Look what's happened to Germany. And in France we'd hardly been there a year before they had a Depression. And as for England—you remember how solid it seemed when we came, and now there's a war and rationing" (p. 38).
However, Anna does not give up attempts to improve her situation. She finds a job, a task made more difficult because she is not British-born. But, then as a resident of London, she sees the war slowly encroach on all aspects of her daily life. At first, few people are concerned because there has been no direct bombing of London. Then everything quickly escalates; Hitler invades Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Holland. Anna's brother Max, who has successfully moved into English life by obtaining a scholarship to Cambridge, is detained as a male enemy alien. Fortunately, he is eventually released and joins the Royal Air Force. Then begins a long period of bombings with the resultant uncertainty and fear.
During this time Anna constantly struggles to find her place in life, which she finally does through her art work. She signs up for night courses, develops her talent, and, by the end of the war, receives a scholarship to a reputable art school. She now belongs somewhere.
Anna also grows in her understanding of the War. She has always realized that the War has disrupted and ruined many lives, but she hasn't thought before of its long-term effects on older people. When she was younger, her parents made her feel safe, not like a refugee. However, she and her brother, as young people, have been able to adjust and find a place in their new country. Now, for her parents, who can never be fully assimilated, everything is "the other way round." "The only times they don't feel like refugees is when they're with" (p. 266) their children.
In The Other Way Round, Anna lives in a country whose policies she accepts. What should young adults who disapprove of their country's policies do? Ceremony of Innocence concerns such a situation. The novel is a fictionalized account of two real people, Hans and Sophie Scholl who, in the face of Nazi authority, dare to distribute leaflets in Munich denouncing the Nazi regime and are executed for their actions. They are non-Jewish Germans who could have lead normal, successful lives as university students, but each makes a conscious decision to act against the government.
The book unfolds in an interesting manner. It is told from Hans's point-of-view as he is sitting in prison after his arrest, awaiting his trial and subsequent execution. Between interrogations, Hans looks back on his life and attempts to understand why he had allowed himself to be put into this situation. He also must decide whether to plead insanity in hopes of mercy or to stand by his actions in the face of certain death. The reader, therefore, obtains a clear view of Hans's inner turmoil.
Even though Hans is the author of the leaflets, he has constantly had doubts. His sister Sophie has not. She has always been the one with the "indestructible convictions" (p. 15). Her convictions are built on her religious faith, which allows her to believe that she will live through eternity, and on her naive belief that since they are right, others will rise up against the Nazi regime with them. However, Hans does not believe in an afterlife or in the naive view that right always will triumph. Then, why does he go through with the writing and distributing of the pamphlets? In a way Sophie acts as his conscience, forcing him into action; but he is also unable to ignore the evil aspects of Nazi life that surround him.
Hans first becomes disillusioned with Hitler in 1933 when, as a Hitler Youth, he realizes he almost is swept up by Hitler's hypnotic and fanatical power. Therefore, he tries to focus his efforts on his medical studies, but he continuously is forced to confront certain evils. He and his friends see a young Jew beaten and eventually killed for riding on a carousel. His sister works with mentally retarded children and is horrified to find they are being shipped off to be killed. He is sent as a medical aid to the Russian front to try to patch up soldiers being senselessly slaughtered.
Hans's experiences in the military make him decide that "self-preservation should be a sensible man's first and only thought" (p. 114). However, he cannot continue to stand by as an idle observer. As he says in his "White Rose" leaflets and in his "Leaflets from the Resistance," "Nothing is less worthy of a civilized country that passively to allow itself to be governed by an irresponsible gang of bosses who have surrendered to their lower instincts" (p. 89).
As Hans sits in jail and looks back on these and other events, he realizes that for himself there has been no other choice. What he has "done was right, however futile … To have acted otherwise would have been to share forever the guilt of a guilty land" (p. 218).
Hans Scholl feels he has no other choice than the one he makes, but others faced with similar situations make different choices. Ilse Koehn, a young girl in Nazi Germany, also despises the aims of Hitler, but her life takes a different direction from that of Hans.
In Mischling, Second Degree, Ilse Koehn gives an autobiographical account of a life made up of deceptions. To survive, Ilse outwardly pretends to believe in the Nazi regime and even becomes a member of the Hitler Youth movement. Her dislike for the policies of the regime are fostered by her parents' beliefs, but she has another reason to fear Hitler's rule—her paternal grandmother is Jewish, making Ilse a Mischling, second degree, technically governed by Anti-Jewish laws. To protect her from this fate, her parents hide their Jewish connection, even from Ilse, and obtain a divorce. Ilse and her mother are then forced to live with her mother's family.
In 1939 at the age of ten, Ilse has trouble refraining from confiding in her friends, but as she grows older, she has less difficulty. At school there is constant supervision and Nazi indoctrination. Ilse knows there are others who share her beliefs and are afraid to make an open demonstration of their views, but she can never let down her guard.
Ilse also has to face the guilt of her country. Her father is acutely aware of it and tells her of atrocities performed by Germany, saying, "I want (you) to know why all Germans, anything German, will soon be something hateful and despicable to the rest of the world" (p. 57). This guilt and the secret hope that the Allies will win quickly further complicate her life. As a Berliner, Ilse sees Allied air attacks killing innocent women and children and the takeover of Berlin by the Russians. However, she and her family see the overthrow of the Hitler regime as their only hope for salvation.
In Night, an autobiography by Elie Wiesel, there is no hope of salvation. This book portrays the most devastating effects of a war. A boy loses not only his family but also his religious beliefs, his innocent view of life and his belief in mankind. In a way, the book is a testimony to what passivity, lack of resistance and an inability to face reality can create. Elie Wiesel emphasizes the inability of the people of his town in Transylvania to believe the atrocities being perpetrated against the Jews.
It is 1941, and 12-year-old Elie, is a profound believer. He is in awe of Moche the Beadle, who discusses religious questions with him. In 1942, Moche the Beadle is expelled as a foreign Jew and returns to tell horror stories of mass graves and slaughtering of people. However, no one believes him, not even Elie. The people of the small town passively await their horrible fate and make no attempts to flee, thinking that anything so horrible is impossible. As the author says, "People were interested in everything … but not their own fate" (p. 6). Then the spring of 1944 comes, and the Germans take over the town, but the people decide not to worry. What is so bad about living in ghettos and wearing yellow stars? Then they are herded into cattle cars and shipped to a place of flames and the "smell of burning flesh" (p. 26).
At first Elie sees everything as a nightmare, but as he walks toward the crematories at Auschwitz and people begin to pray, he feels "revolt rise up in" him against a God who could allow such horrors. That night turns Elie's life "into one long night." As he says, "Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever" and "that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live" (p. 32).
Elie quickly loses his faith in God and his faith in humanity. Everything about the camp is dehumanizing, and this dehumanization takes place rapidly in the name of survival. By the second day, Elie is able to stand without flinching as he sees his father struck by a guard. Occasionally, Elie is sickened by killing, as he is when a young boy is hanged. Generally, however, the fact that thousands die daily does not bother him or prevent him from eating well.
One thing Elie tries to hold onto is his loyalty to his father, but he loses even that. He resents his father when he is unable to prevent guards from beating him, and "in the recesses of (his) weakened conscience feels free at last" when his father dies (p. 106). When Elie is freed by the Americans at the age of 15, he is a corpse whose only thought is food, "not of revenge, not of (his) family" (p. 109). He is left forever with that image of himself.
Obviously, these four stories of suffering during World War II do not provide any clear answers to our present global problems, but they can bring individuals, both young and old, to the realization that everyone contributes to the problems and the solutions through action and inaction. With the present threat of nuclear annihilation, we have all in a strange way, as Elie Wiesel said after viewing the movie The Day After, become Jews facing the ultimate Holocaust together.
Forman, James. Ceremony of Innocence. Hawthorn Books, 1970.
Kerr, Judith. The Other Way Round. Coward, 1975.
Koehn, Ilse. Mischling, Second Degree: My Childhood in Nazi Germany. Greenwillow, 1977.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Avon, 1972.
Caroline C. Hunt (essay date fall 1992)
SOURCE: Hunt, Caroline C. "World War II as Metaphor in Young Adult Fiction, 1968-1978." ALAN Review 20, no. 1 (fall 1992): 23-6.
[In the following essay, Hunt suggests that the thematic use of war in literature for adolescents is actually a metaphor for the readers' own internal struggles in the quest for self-identity.]
World War II has some obvious advantages as a setting for young adult books. It is accessible, actually within "living memory" for many people (as opposed to, say, the Wars of the Roses), and it is also familiar, thanks to movies, television, and a sizeable traffic in memorabilia from the period. Everyone knows who Hitler was. For both these reasons it fits the sometimes simplistic requirements of the adolescent market. It is unique, involving a Holocaust of almost unimaginable scope. And it can be seen in rather simpler terms than many other wars: readers may feel secure that they know who are the good guys.
Given the advantages of the Second World War as background for young adult novels, what have authors done with it? How have they exploited its particular qualities? And why did so many of the outstanding World War II books appear in the decade from 1968 to 1978?
Let me distinguish at the beginning between novels about war and novels which use war as a metaphor, though of course a painfully real one, for certain constants in the human condition. A book like Brian Garfield's The Paladin, in which a fifteen-year-old schoolboy is recruited as a spy by Churchill, is a book about war, and particularly about one aspect of it, spying. But a book like the Colliers' My Brother Sam Is Dead, in which a boy chooses one side in the Revolution while his family supports the other, is only incidentally about war, for the Revolution here stands mainly for a certain kind of choice. We will not see many people objecting to The Paladin, in spite of its violence and some nasty betrayals—such as a scene in which the hero has to strangle the first women who ever seduced him. The Paladin, after all, is a true story and one in which, we are to assume, the end justifies the means. My Brother Sam Is Dead, though, raises hackles for its questioning of war itself, for its suggestion of little or no moral distinction between Patriot and Loyalist, and, most of all, for its challenge of parental authority. It is no surprise that last year the Greenville, South Carolina, county school board was asked to remove the book by parental request.
There are a great many good and readable books about various wars, and particularly about World War II. They may deal with spying, like The Paladin, or with submarines, or with the air war, or with any other theatre of action. Other good and readable, though often harrowing, books deal with the Holocaust. Following many years after the stunning publication of Anne Frank's diary came Johanna Reiss's The Upstairs Room, Ilse Koehn's Mischling, Second Degree, Doris Orgel's The Devil in Vienna, and Myron Levoy's Alan and Naomi, all familiar titles, all but the last one autobiographical. These stories show the adolescent reader what it felt like to be concealed from the Gestapo, or to have to conceal one's parentage, or to be haunted by memories of the camps. They show the war as it directly affected individuals with whom the adolescent reader can identify.
War and the Internal Struggle
But there is a very different kind of book about war—and, particularly, about World War II. Here the battlefield occupies the background, where the reader does not see it. The war is basically an outward sign of the inner struggles of the characters, especially the adolescent main character. Externalizing a struggle that is really internal occurs a good deal in fiction for adolescents. It is no coincidence that the quest, that endlessly popular theme in so much Western literature, takes its place as the foremost theme in young adult literature: as the hero seeks whatever he is destined to seek, he finds himself. So, too, war comes as a ready made analogy for the turmoil of the adolescent years, and many of the better novels for this age group exploit war as, chiefly, a series of mental events in the protagonist's mind.
An author will often concentrate on images of struggle and confusion to work out the analogy between the war and the characters' mental battles. Two novels which do this very strikingly are Judy Blume's Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself and Ella Leffland's Rumors of Peace. In each of these, the heroine is an imaginative girl entering adolescence. The action alternates between mundane local events and a far off struggle seen chiefly through headlines:
Showdown in Solomons Near!
The blinding sun, the thunk of bullets piercing bone, the smell of rotting corpses. Peggy pulled me in from the newsstand. She had been awarded her phonograph (secondhand, because there were no new ones to be bought), and we were on the way to the Melody House …
Suse, the twelve-year-old child of Danish immigrants, sees naively at the beginning of the novel. In this passage, her mind moves effortlessly from the fight in the Solomons to the coming record binge at The Melody House. The reader, while recognizing Suse's love for her adopted country and sympathizing with her ghoulish love of thrilling headlines, also sees her basic immaturity when she gloats over a photograph of the charred head of a Japanese soldier protruding from a burned tank.
Blume's Sally J. Freedman, too, sees events in terms of a melodramatic struggle. She constantly daydreams that she will confront and defeat Hitler:
Sally F. Meets Adolf Hitler
It is during the war and Sally is caught by Hitler in a roundup of Jewish people in Union County, New Jersey. She has secret information from the head of the underground but she refuses to tell … Tell me, you little swine, Hitler hisses at her, tell me what you know or I'll cut off your hair.
Your threats don't scare me, Adolf, Sally says.
Oh no? We'll see about that! Hitler grabs a pair of scissors and Sally's hair falls to the floor in slow motion until there is a great pile at her feet. Now you will talk! Hitler screams.
Never! Sally answers and she sticks her tongue out at him.
Only gradually, after the onset of sexual change and after encountering several moral puzzlers, does a more complex view of events and people develop for Sally and Suse. For instance, Sally's repeated attempts to link shabby old Mr. Zavodsky with Hitler end when he dies of a heart attack. She begins to move toward reality, recognizing her fantasies:
Sally started laughing too. She couldn't help it either. It was funny … Hitler in Union Woods … why would he bother to go there?
The struggles going on within the main character sometimes translate into action. Harry Mazer's more or less autobiographical protagonist, Jack Raab, has daydreams rather like Sally's and Suse's:
Commander Raab took a slow drag on his cigarette. Raab's band of Jewish volunteers, mere boys, but all with hearts like lions, were deep in Nazi territory. Their mission: Destroy Hitler.
But there is a difference: Jack has already been inducted into the Air Corps and will actually be flying missions against Hitler. He worries more about an accidental discovery of his age (fifteen) than he does about the enemy. Stories like this and The Paladin exploit another part of the appeal of war: the sanctioned use of aggression, either actual or imagined. It is "all right," even heroic, for these boys to direct their natural turmoil and aggression at the Nazis, just as it is almost "all right" for Sally and Suse to picture similar things.
War as We vs. Them
War not only stands for the turmoil and aggression of adolescence but offers a tempting view of society as polarized into Our side vs. Their side. It is easier to applaud the removal of Japanese-Americans to internment camps, as Suse does in Rumors of Peace, than to think about the meaning of such an uprooting of a people. "They hate us, and we hate them," says Suse to her friend Peggy's brilliant sister Helen Maria, who demolishes such arguments with the finesse one might expect of a 15-year-old UCLA graduate, summa cum laude, who espouses free love and art for art's sake. Suse concludes, "I would never again throw out my deepest questions. It was better to remain locked up in the dark with them. This I knew absolutely, once and for all" (p. 140).
This kind of simplification, tempting to many puzzled and searching adolescent readers, helps to sell adult thrillers like The Paladin and Jack Higgins' Day of Judgment to the teenage audience. In fact, both of these, and many other "adult" thrillers, have appeared on YA booklists and in YA reviewing sources like Kirkus. On the other hand, even the most mindless war story, about even the most popular war, suggests certain problems. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Suse, a bloodthirsty as she is, eventually feels some empathy for the other side:
U.S. Okinawa Dead—3,781 But Jap Loss Is 47,543!
It was a gloating headline. I was glad it wasn't the other way around, but it was a gloating headline. Gloating was human nature. There was too much about human nature that set your teeth on edge.
Suse's growth from a primitive kind of jingoism to the beginnings of a mature awareness shows how a skillful author can use the natural polarizing metaphor of war—in this case, a polarity to be outgrown.
A variant of the We/They polarity is the problem of group identity. How can a family like the one in Jean Little's Listen for the Singing identify with their homeland, Germany, when they are now Canadians and one of them, Rudy, is fighting against the Germans? Or are they really Canadians? Their old customers buy groceries elsewhere to avoid trading with "Germans." How can the Wakatsukis, in Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's autobiographical Farewell to Manzanar, "belong" to a country which has interned them? How can Jeanne's father become "suddenly a man with no rights who looked exactly like the enemy" (p. 6)? How can Ilse Koehn know who she is after her Aryan grandparents force her mother to leave Ilse's half-Jewish father, and how can she carry out her duties in the Hitler Youth school to which she has been evacuated? How, even, can the Aryan girl Lieselotte Vessely, in Orgel's The Devil in Vienna, sing the song "when Jewish blood spurts from our knives," (p. 159) then continue writing affectionate letters to her Jewish best friend, Inge Donenwald?
War and the Adolescent Self
Yet, ultimately, identity depends not only on group membership but on the perception of one's self. The protagonists who are isolated from their own society, like those just mentioned, experience in exaggerated form the alienation that is a natural part of adolescence. The spies, too, the people who are "re- ally" someone else, whose true worth (and very identity) must remain unknown to those around them, seem like prototypes of the adolescent with their extensive secret life, their suspicion that they are never really "known" to, or appreciated by, those around them. Something of this can be seen in the daydreams of Sally Freedman and Jack Raab. Another kind of alienation results when characters are removed from everything familiar and set down in a new place where they know no one and no one knows them. They may then have to come to terms with their own identity sooner than they would have otherwise. Farewell to Manzanar and many of the Holocaust novels do this; so do several outstanding books in which the geographical move forced by the war leads to increased independence and more advanced moral judgment on the part of the hero.
For instance, Nina Bawden's Carrie's War portrays two children evacuated from London to a peculiar household in Wales. In this house lies a skull, supposedly from an African slave, which will bring disaster if it leaves the house. Carrie throws the skull into a pond then feels herself responsible when the house burns. Carrie's own war, as the title implies, takes place only in that Welsh village.
So, too, Ray Bradford's Red Sky at Morning shows a sheltered boy from Louisiana moving to a Spanish-speaking town in the Southwest. His mother, unable to adjust, leans heavily on sherry and on a semipermanent houseguest, Jimbob. The boy Josh makes friends among the local people, attends the village school, and gets into all kinds of trouble from which he has to extricate himself as his mother becomes increasingly cut off from reality. By the end of the novel, when the inevitable wire comes announcing his father's death, the boy is ready to take charge—a development hastened by his new and demanding environment more than by the war itself. In novels like these, moving to an unfamiliar place because of the war is not just a plot device, but a metaphor for the uprooted, involuntarily self-reliant condition of the adolescent main character. In one case, T. Degen's Transport 7-41-R, the entire story consists of a young girl's journey, by cattle car, into the unknown.
The wartime journey also has many parallels with the classic initiation sequence, and young adult novels frequently exploit the idea of a definite, recognized entry into the adult culture. A young adult novel may, for instance, focus on the development of male and female roles. One of the constants in war fiction is the expression "to be a man," "act like a man," and clichés like "Yesterday I was a boy. Now I felt older—much older" abound in these books. And yet, clichés or not, they echo an important part of adolescence—the awareness of maturing as a man or woman. The war makes it all happen faster and gives urgency to the process. Peter, in Rumors of Peace, is a typical high school boy until he receives his draft notice. So, too, Rudy in Listen for the Singing and Christopher in The Paladin grow up with a suddenness that would seem incredible in peacetime, as does Harry Mazer's protagonist in The Last Mission, who "borrows" his older brother's identity papers to get into the Air Force at fifteen. Kate, the schoolgirl in Sarah Patterson's The Distant Summer would not be old enough to date according to her parents' standards, but wartime and the proximity of an airbase change all that.
The tasks of adolescence, the establishment of the male or female role, and the assumption of adult responsibilities are not completed until they are understood and assimilated. Surprisingly, very few good war books for young adults or children came out before this time. The 1940's? Pulp war adventures, yes—but quality fiction for young people basically ignored the war (a fascinating story in itself, but too complex to describe here). The 1950's and early 60's? Much the same, except that nonfiction juvenile titles began to cover the war. The later 1960's? Yes—finally. War books proliferated, for two reasons: first, the cultural climate was one in which questions of the kinds I have indicated could be asked. Imagine My Brother Sam Is Dead in the 1950's, for instance. Second, and perhaps more directly important, the authors, as a group, reached an age of reflection. Anyone checking the birthdates of our authors will conclude that they were writing, a generation later, about what happened to them or around them when they themselves were young.
The Aftermath of War
Like their authors, the protagonists in many of these books look back at the war years, seeing it as a crucial period, seeking to understand the meanings of what happened to them. The Last Mission, for example, is, actually, a fictionalized memoir of the author's experiences in the war—experiences with which he came to terms much later, as an adult. The Distant Summer, too, introduces its readers to a war that happened thirty years before.
The Anna who left Berlin as a child in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit has to face the trials of late adolescence and in the sequel The Other Way Round, find- ing a job in an alien culture. Finally, in A Small Person Far Away, she succeeds in assimilating the events described in the other two books and accepts her new nationality, her separateness from her mother, and her complicated feelings for her brilliant brother Max. The search takes on more meaning when Anna learns that she is pregnant; she will no longer be the child seeking her mother, but the mother herself:
Somewhere very far away, a small person in boots was running up some steps, shouting, "Ist Mami da?" I wonder how I'll do, she thought. I wonder how on earth I'll do.
So, too, in Morning Is a Long Time Coming, Bette Greene examines the aftermath of war, when Patty has to continue growing up and assimilate, almost exorcise, what she went through during the Summer of My German Soldier. In Summer, one of the most controversial war books of the 1970's, all the ordinary values and identifications were reversed (the innocent German soldier, the sadistic Jewish parents, and so on), causing almost as many problems for readers as for the early-adolescent heroine. Typically, the group-identity and basic ethical questions raised here should belong to early adolescence or even late childhood, as, too, in the Blume and Freedman books cited earlier. The task of recovering and understanding the past, so successfully dealt with in Morning and A Small Person, belongs to a later period in life. So, too, the child Annie of The Upstairs Room becomes the more complex, often confused and angry teenager of The Journey Back, attempting to take up her interrupted relationship with her father and older sisters. A major part of her task is to accept that the war has in fact ended, that she no longer lives with the friendly Ooostervelds but with her father and new stepmother, that her sisters have become adults, that her mother and many others in the village are really gone.
War, in other words, does have an end—does become a part of the past, like adolescence itself. Like adolescence, too, it recurs every so often—if not once in each generation, at least within nearly every lifetime. Whether it simplifies moral choices or suggests all kinds of possibilities for one's identity, whether it forces a sort of early hothouse maturity in sex roles or work roles, or whether it simply removes the adolescent to a new and challenging locale, the war we see in young adult novels serves as an ideal metaphor for stress, turmoil, and challenge.
Bawden, Nina. Carrie's War. Gollancz and Lippincott, 1973.
Blume, Judy. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. The Bradbury Press, 1977.
Bradford, Richard. Red Sky at Morning. Lippincott, 1968.
Bridgers, Sue Ellen. Home before Dark. Knopf, 1976.
Collier, James Lincoln and Christopher. My Brother Sam Is Dead. Four Winds, 1974.
Degens, T. Transport 7-41-R. Viking, 1974.
Garfield, Brian. The Paladin. Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Greene, Bette. Morning Is a Long Time Coming. Dial Press, 1978.
———. Summer of My German Soldier. Dial Press, 1973.
Higgins, Jack. Day of Judgment. Holt, Rinehart & Winstron, 1979.
Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki. Farewell to Manzanar. Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
Kerr, Judith. The Other Way Round. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1975.
———. A Small Person Far Away. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979.
———. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972.
Koehn, Ilse. Mischling, Second Degree. Greenwillow Books, 1977.
Leffland, Ella. Rumors of Peace. Harper & Row, 1979.
Levoy, Myron. Alan and Naomi. Harper & Row, 1977.
Little, Jean. Listen for the Singing. Dutton, 1977.
Mazer, Harry. The Last Mission. Delacorte, 1979.
Orgel, Doris. The Devil in Vienna. Delacorte, 1978.
Patterson, Sarah. The Distant Summer. Simon & Schuster, 1976.
Reiss, Johanna. The Upstairs Room. Crowell, 1972.
———. The Journey Back. Thomas Crowell, 1976.
Rosalie Benoit Weaver (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Weaver, Rosalie Benoit. "Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier: The War within the Human Heart." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000, edited Nicholas J. Karolides, pp. 409-13. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.
[In the following essay, Weaver delineates how Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier utilizes its World War II setting as a textual tool for examining issues of self-hatred, racism, and love.]
As a Jewish girl growing up in a predominantly Christian fundamentalist small Southern town during and immediately after the years of World War II, Bette Greene is able to draw on her unique childhood experience in her fiction. One major theme in her work, the ugly effect that fear and intolerance of difference can wreak on human lives, pervades her first and most well-known novel, Summer of My German Soldier. In this novel Greene effectively and creatively transfers the hatred and anti-Semitism of World War II Europe to the small, Southern town where her main character lives.
Greene depicts the growing friendship between Patty Bergen, a twelve-year-old Jewish girl living in Jenkinsville, Arkansas, and Anton, a young German escapee from a POW camp outside of town. By bringing the reality of World War II to the postwar smalltown South, Greene highlights the effects of racial and religious bigotry within the United States, within a small Southern town, within the family of Patty Bergen, and ultimately within Patty herself. Greene skillfully sets World War II, a war waged for racial, religious, and political dominance, as the backdrop to the war waged within Patty for love and acceptance.
The novel opens with the townspeople turning out to watch the arrival of a trainload of Nazi prisoners of war, young German soldiers, whose appearance strikes Patty as neither threatening nor shameful: "the only thing I sensed was a kind of relief at finally having arrived at their destination" (3). Nevertheless, it soon becomes evident that both Patty and Anton (one labeled Jewish and one a Nazi) are seen as outsiders, and they both struggle to escape the fear and hatred generated by their perceived difference.
Perhaps it is this fear of difference that causes some readers of Bette Greene's novel to see it as too disturbing for its young adult audience. Various criticisms of the novel take exception to Greene's treatment of domestic violence in her graphic depiction of the brutal beatings Patty takes at the hands of a father who cannot love her or himself. Other critics see anti-Semitism in Greene's contrast of the dark figure of the Jewish father against the dignity and goodness of the young German POW. Another view is that Greene is too hard on the social mores of small towns in the Bible Belt. Like Patty, Greene challenges the status quo by questioning the injustice of long-held beliefs and social conventions. Although Patty pays a large price for her questioning, in the end she transforms her self-hatred into a self-awareness that gives her the courage to move beyond the limits set by her town and her family, and to continue speaking out against injustice.
The opening line of the novel reveals the extreme pressure Patty feels to fit in and be pleasing in the eyes of others: "When I saw the crowd gathering at the train station, I worried what President Roosevelt would think" (1). Patty worries that her townspeople's public display of curiosity about the German prisoners of war might be seen as a danger to national security and ultimately as unpatriotic. She is quick to defend her community, "[w]e're as patriotic as anybody" (1). In this first scene, Greene introduces the general sense of patriotism that is often called on to cover up the realities of intolerance and hatred. As the novel progresses, Greene slowly unravels this widespread notion to reveal what lies beneath. When Patty reports to her family's black housekeeper, Ruth, that she has been watching the arrival of the prisoners of war, Ruth sees through the convention of patriotism to the truth about war: "Well I don't care nothing about no wars and no medals, I just care about my boy coming back safe" (6). For Ruth, the patriotic message that war is honorable and glorious rings false. The truth is that her son, who fights to defend freedom, is treated unjustly by his own country, discriminated against at home, and segregated from whites in the army. From the start, Greene challenges her readers to dig beneath the surface of conventional beliefs to find the real truth.
This challenge continues throughout the novel but not in a "preachy," didactic way; rather, Bette Greene dramatizes without comment, human conflict which, in turn, evokes reader response. From this initial reaction, adolescent and postadolescent readers can then begin to examine their own preconceived attitudes and feelings, and often gain new insights into the mysteries of the human heart. One such mystery is that of child abuse. Her father's anger and violence toward Patty are deeply disturbing to readers:
At his temple a vein was pulsating like a neon sign…. Only one foot advanced before a hand tore across my face, sending me into total blackness. But then against the blackness came a brilliant explosion of Fourth-of-July stars….
The pain was almost tolerable when a second blow crashed against my cheek, continuing down with deflection force to my shoulder…. Knees came unbuckled. I gave myself to the sidewalk. Between blows I knew I could withstand anything he could give out, but once they came, I knew I couldn't.
This explosion of hatred, so graphically described, evokes from Greene's readers intense feelings: anger and disgust. In their initial reaction to the father's cruelty, readers often label him as evil, while they see Anton as all-good. Greene will not allow such easy answers. While Anton equates Patty's father to Hitler, "Cruelty is after all cruelty, and the difference between the two men may have more to do with their degrees of power than their degrees of cruelty," he admits that he has no right to judge anyone because of his role in the Nazi army, which he describes as "two years of being as inconspicuous a coward as possible" (119).
Bette Greene instinctively knows what all the best young adult writers have learned: that the move from adolescence to adulthood is a continuum that is marked by the development of critical thinking skills, and that reading is one major way to hone these skills. Nilsen and Donelson, authors of the foremost textbook on teaching young adult literature, compare the "stages of literary appreciation" to steps to self-awareness, from "finding oneself in a story," to moving beyond this egocentric view. As adults-in-progress, these readers move to the stage Nilsen and Donelson describe as "venturing beyond themselves" to "look at the larger circle of society," and they choose literature that "raise[s] questions about conformity, social pressures, justice, and other aspects of human frailties and strengths" (40).
Summer of My German Soldier provides the opportunity for developing readers to move beyond simple labels and stereotypes to gaining insight into complex issues. Even Patty, in extreme physical and emotional pain, refuses to see her father solely as evil. She explains, "other times I think he's beating out from my body all his own bad" (115). Anton reinforces her insight when he tells Patty what her father did after the beating: "He stood watching the housekeeper help you into the house. Then he came into the garage and talked to himself. Over and over he kept repeating, ‘Nobody loves me. In my whole life nobody has loved me’" (116). Patty's response to this revelation raises a difficult question about the human heart: "I don't understand. Why? How could he be so mean and then worry that he isn't loved?" (116).
Into this already complicated issue, Greene mixes racism. Mr. Bergen's experience of anti-Semitism in a small southern town has caused him to internalize the hatred he has felt and to turn that hatred on his own daughter. Discerning readers will find a balance to Patty's father in her grandfather and grandmother, who refuse to use anti-Semitism as an excuse for blaming others for one's victimization. Her grandparents credit the press for telling the true story of Patty and Anton: "tonight people throughout the world will be reading about how a Jewish girl befriended a German boy" (169).
Greene's novel exposes young adult readers to the origins of self-hatred: in Patty's case her father's hatred and cruel abuse, the emotional distance and constant criticism of her mother, and the rejection of her peers. It reveals, further, the results of self-hatred and shows that she does not have to accept self-hatred as her legacy; she is determined to pursue the truth about society as a reporter.
Bette Greene's exploration of the dynamics of racism provides important insight to young adult readers about their own experiences with hatred and intolerance. As the tragedy at Columbine High School has shown us all too brutally, hatred and intolerance occur in our schools every day. This is a topic that touches the immediate world of today's young people, and educators and parents must help them to confront and deconstruct the underlying assumptions that contribute to their self-destructive behavior.
Bette Greene's on going analogy between Patty and Anton, with Patty as a kind of prisoner of war within her family and community, is a concept that is attractive to young adult readers. As Patty's friendship with Anton develops into a love story, her courageous attempt to help Anton escape parallels her own impending break from her father's oppression and the townspeople's scorn. Both Anton's and Patty's status as outsiders brings about their individual persecution and adds complexity to the theme of doomed young love.
Ultimately, the value of this novel lies in its presentation of the complexity of hatred. The backdrop of World War II anti-Semitism combined with postwar Southern racism provides rich texture for Greene's study of one young woman's struggle with self- hatred. Her father transfers his self-hatred to his daughter: "I saw the hate that gnarled and snarled his face like a dog gone rabid. He's going to find out someday I can hate too—" (58). The townspeople find her actions incomprehensible: "‘Jew Nazi-lover!’ screamed the minister's wife" (164). Even upstanding Jewish citizens like the lawyer Mr. Kishner, attack Patty: "Young lady, you have embarrassed Jews everywhere. Because your loyalty is questionable, then every Jew's loyalty is in question" (177). Ironically, the two people who show Patty the way out of her war within herself are a young German soldier and an old black housekeeper. The only "family member" who visits Patty in reform school is Ruth, who has worked for Patty's family for years, and who loves Patty dearly: "And from that first day I walked into your house I loved you the most, and I love you the most today…. Why, I ain't even the only one. He loved you. Anton did" (191). As Patty is left to examine her relationship to herself, her family, and to society, the reader must move through these same issues.
By exploring hatred from various angles, some of them very uncomfortable ones, Bette Greene refuses easy answers to complex questions. Her refusal is what attracts so many young adult readers to her novel and makes it worthwhile reading almost thirty years after its first appearance. For teachers trying to provide students with every opportunity for honing their critical thinking skills, Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier is a wonderful tool.
Greene, Bette. Summer of My German Soldier. New York: Dial, 1973.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Kenneth J. Donelson. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Sixth edition. New York: Longman, 2001.
Winifred Whitehead (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: Whitehead, Winifred. "No End to War." In Old Lies Revisited: Young Readers and the Literature of War and Violence, pp. 223-34. London, England: Pluto Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Whitehead examines works of young adult literature depicting the Falklands Islands War.]
After each of the two World Wars there was a hope, even an expectation, that the scale and horror of the destruction they had caused would turn mankind once and for all to more peaceful ways of settling disputes. But in spite of the League of Nations, and later of the United Nations, armed conflict within and between states has continued to be a feature of the second half of the twentieth century. Of the ‘Great Powers’, the USA, Great Britain and the USSR have each been involved in wars on territories other than their own: and although no nuclear war has yet broken out, the ‘cold war’ with its accompanying escalation of nuclear arsenals and the endless testing of nuclear bombs and warheads has caused death and misery to innocent victims of fall-out or of displacement from testing grounds; and germ or chemical warfare, napalm and other weapons designed specifically for use against civilians have been employed in a number of conflicts.
Some of these conflicts have been reflected in novels for young readers and adults. The setting for Andi's War, for instance, Billi Rosen's thoughtful novel for readers of eleven or twelve, is the civil war which raged in Greece from 1946 to 1949, bringing tragedy into the lives of Andi and her younger brother, Paul. Through their encounters with former friends, neighbours and relatives now openly or secretively hostile to each other and active on one side or other of the conflict, and also through their more ordinary everyday concerns and childish feuds, Billi Rosen has created an immensely readable story about the effects of war on young children, and the waste and tragedy involved.
The second half of the twentieth century has also seen devastating wars in Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam. The War Orphan by Rachel Lindsay, a story for readers from twelve to fourteen, gives a graphic account of the sufferings of the peasant families caught up in the conflict in Vietnam. It brings vividly to our attention the way war brutalises its participants, changing innocent, sensitive 18-year-old American recruits into cynical killers, regarding their victims as subhuman nuisances to be eliminated without compunction so that they may get back safely and quickly to their own home comforts. Even more vividly it brings home to us the dire effects of war upon the innocent victims, upon children as well as adults traumatised beyond repair in a nightmare of war, with its consequent bombing, defoliants, starvation, misery and suffering. On Loan, by Anne Brooksbank, set in Australia after the end of the Vietnam war, tells of the memories and subsequent fortunes of Lindy, a Vietnamese girl of 14. She had been adopted into an Australian family at the age of three, and now faces a conflict of loyalties. Her father, who at the time of her adoption was fighting with the Viet Cong, has traced her whereabouts and wishes to reclaim her; a situation which had its parallels after the Second World War, particularly for Jewish children saved from death through adoption into non-Jewish families. Her story is quietly told, but effectively conveys the pain and disruption war brings to the lives of ordinary people.
But though these past wars, the continuing wars in the Middle East, and the various conflicts in Ethiopia or Central America have attracted some genuine concern and help from a few conscientious and hardworking organisations and individuals in Britain and elsewhere, they have seemed remote from the consciousness of most British people. The Falklands War, on the other hand, brought home forcibly the ease with which war fever can still seize hold of the British public, regardless of the personal tragedies it involves. This is the predominant theme of The Falklands Summer, by John Branfield, a novel which sets out clearly the effect upon his hero, Matthew, of the mood of jingoistic nationalism so readily evoked in defence of these remote and little-known islands.
Matthew was barely 16 when the conflict in the Falklands began to stir his imagination to such a pitch that his quiet Cornish moors were transformed daily into a battleground. As he walks home from the bus after his final GCE examination:
A helicopter passed overhead on its way to the coast. All the small birds round about scattered in alarm. He pressed himself against the bank, so as not to be seen. Just before it went out of sight over the hillside, he fired an imaginary missile at it. He looked for the flash of flame, listened for the explosion as it crashed in the next valley, but the engine faded away and then grew loud again as the helicopter circled around and came into view. He threw himself into the tall bracken around the stream on the other side of the road, and took cover. He lay low as it passed overhead, disappearing into the south west. He had not been spotted.
Still absorbed in his vivid fantasies of the Falklands War, Matthew goes down towards the beach and, meeting his friend, Robert, joins him in a commando-style war-game. Though the two boys are in fact observing closely the wildlife, the birds and a family of foxes in the peace of a Cornish summer, their activity is transformed into a scene from San Carlos bay.
With the moorland and the sea, it was very much Falklands country … There was plenty of cover for snipers … There were no boats in sight. The warships retired beyond the horizon during the day, to come in close to the beaches under the cover of darkness to begin their bombardment of the enemy positions … A kestrel strayed into the airspace of the valley. It was a total exclusion zone and the swallows saw it off. They flew above it and dived down, buzzing it closely. They escorted it back to the cliffs.
This war play might seem a harmless enough fantasy in younger boys, like Derek and his friends in Dawn of Fear, but Matthew's involvement with it has become an obsession which is threatening to change into reality. He contemplates the history of the war so far: ‘The Task Force was despatched to recapture the islands. The very name Task Force stirred him deeply. It made it sound like a band of tough, highly trained men setting out on a mission.’ He longs to be ‘one of the heroes sailing away to the South Atlantic’. He ‘wanted a fight’. So he is overjoyed when the Argentine battlecruiser, the General Belgrano, is sunk.
It wasn't clear whether it was inside or outside the Total Exclusion Zone, or whether it was steaming towards the British Fleet or heading for the mainland. But what did it matter? They had asked for it.
It sank quickly, with a thousand sailors on board. A British hunter-killer submarine had proved a match for the Argentine Navy. ‘GOTCHA!’ he rejoiced, while his dad looked glum.
The tragic fate of the Belgrano, and the equivocal mixture of feelings surrounding its sinking are brought out clearly in Branfield's narrative. Matthew was not alone in his rejoicing: such callous disregard of human life (‘They had asked for it’) is a normal accompaniment of the kind of patriotic fervour aroused in those supporting a war from a safe home base. It is worth noting that those actually involved in the fighting are often less willing to gloat over the enemy dead.
But by the time Matthew's exams are over, the Falklands War has ended too. ‘And,’ he regretfully observes, ‘now the news was just about strikes again.’ Nevertheless, he still dreams war, now imagining himself building a nuclear shelter in the disused underground workings of the old lead mines, ‘so that they could live down there for at least two weeks while the nuclear fallout was dropping like snow outside’.
His parents lecture him about his ‘obsession’ with war, and tell him ‘it was time he grew up and rea- lised what it really meant’. Matthew defensively tells himself that he does know what it means—he had been ‘haunted by the three men from Central Europe’ who had crashed on the ‘wild and stormy cliff top in Cornwall’ in the 1940s and had never returned home. He knew, too, all about those returning home from the South Atlantic, ‘with burnt hands like blackened stumps in plastic bags’, some ‘so badly deformed that they weren't even going to be allowed to appear in the victory parade’. Then, still defiantly pursuing his fantasies of action and glory, he goes off to the recruiting office for brochures about joining the army, and finds that he is by no means the only youngster to have been inspired with similar dreams. The office has been ‘inundated with enquiries, absolutely inundated’.
But before he can actually take the plunge and join up, he must wait for his examination results. Meantime he contents himself with organising a daring expedition with his three friends to a small island off the coast, where they will hoist the Cornish flag of St Piran in protest at the business enterprise which has taken over the land and is razing the woods, destroying the scrub which was ‘an important habitat for many creatures’, including the family of foxes which the boys had been watching every day. This enterprise might seem a worthwhile direction for his frustrated energies, and one which belongs comfortably with his genuine interest in the flora and fauna of the countryside. The trouble is that it is a madcap scheme which nearly results in Robert's death. Then Matthew realises where his fantasies have led him. But for the chance of being seen by fishermen, ‘they would have drifted out to sea, and the boat would probably have sunk before morning. They might have been drowned; whether they sank or not, Robert almost certainly would not have survived the night.’
As he faces ‘the fear and guilt that he had not felt at the time’, Matthew begins to understand that although ostensibly his expedition had been undertaken in a worthy cause his real motives had been to seize the opportunity for ‘acting out a fantasy’. So he realises at last the connection between his rash adventure and the fantasies of war acted out for real by grown men.
With a bit of luck, with better weather, they could have brought it off. And then it would have been a fine example of the adventurous spirit of British youth, rekindled by the Falklands War. It was all right for adults, he thought, to act out an adolescent fantasy; that was valour. But if you were an adolescent, it was ‘foolhardiness’.
The implications are clear. Matthew had been fascinated by war since his primary-school days, when ‘he did project after project’ about the Second World War, ‘filling books with detailed drawings of the uniforms and armaments, the tanks and aircraft used on both sides’, and filling ‘sack after sack with twisted scraps of old metal, instruments and bullets’ found at the site of a wrecked plane. Matthew is not alone, of course, in deluding himself that war is heroic, glamorous and glorious. Many others, old and young, joined at the time in the excitement of the Falklands War, betrayed by an upsurge of patriotism into supporting what a short time before, in a different context, they might have condemned. For them, too, the glamour and nostalgia of the Second World War was quickly revived in the thrills of ‘the landings at San Carlos Bay, the fighting off of the attacks by Super Etendards of the Argentine Air Force armed with Exocet missiles, the recapture of Goose Green and Port Stanley’.
One unusual feature of this story, though, is the absence of actual scenes of violence or fighting. The glamour and thrills are all in the mind, all play-acting. By contrast both Jan Needle's A Game of Soldiers and Eduardo Quiroga's On Foreign Ground take us to the war itself.
For the three children in A Game of Soldiers (see Chapter 1) war was not a fantasy: it was a reality which was steadily creeping closer, and terrifying eight-year-old Thomas, Sarah, who was older, and even the ‘tough’ Michael, as they lie awake in their several homes in the Falklands listening to the bombardment outside. As Michael lies dreaming of his own heroic part should the enemy invade his house:
Suddenly, his bedroom wall was illuminated as if by a lightning flash. In the intense whiteness a British marine surged forward from the poster, all white teeth and rifle. As it faded, Michael discovered to his shame that he was whimpering.
The poster is part of his private glorification of the war and the British commandos; but the ‘shell, or bomb, or missile’ which has illuminated it so dramatically has ‘switched Michael's brain from bloodthirsty fantasy to fright’. This is the theme of the book: that war, at close quarters, is a nasty, brutal business, involving, in this case, as the children discover next day, a 16-year-old Argentine soldier hiding nearby, too severely wounded to move from the hut where he has taken shelter.
And he was young. Despite the greyness of his skin, despite the stubble, despite the gun, he was young. Sarah, for some reason, was deeply shocked by this. He was not much older than she was, or Michael. A matter of a few years. He was a boy.
This terrified lad, soon to be shot down in cold blood, was the same age as Matthew and his friends, who, in The Falklands Summer, were acting out war fantasies in the safety of the Cornish moors. But for the Argentinian boy there were no heroics, only pain, and fear and death.
The same fate is to meet the young Argentine soldier in On Foreign Ground. Enrique is 22 by the time he finds himself on the ‘foreign ground’ of the title. But his experiences of violence stretch back to the years of the Peron reign of terror, when his 18-year-old brother, Juan, was arrested. Under torture Juan implicated in activities against the government anyone he could think of, innocent or guilty. One name and address he gave in his extremity was that of Enrique's innocent 15-year-old friend Monkey, who consequently is also arrested. A few days later, Enrique remembers:
We were all in Monkey's house, trying to think of a way of finding out what had happened. Suddenly the bell rang and Mrs Cohen went to open the door. Her scream brought us out in a flash … There on the step was a small huddled body, naked and covered in purple bruises, hardly recognisable if not for a shock of red hair. Around his neck was a think black line like a collar: a nylon thread was embedded in the skin. His bloated tongue peered through his split lips. His eyes were mercifully closed. He seemed incredibly old.
It is against this grim background, in which there is no room for the comfortable fantasies of Matthew and his friends, or of Michael's brief dreams, that Enrique goes to war. But first he has a few idyllic weeks with an English girl in Paris, and his story is told in letters to her which she will never read, and which he writes from his camp, somewhere near Port Stanley. Interwoven with his warm memories of their brief weeks in Paris and later in Brazil, and his recollections of the misery and terror of the Peron years, is the account of the Falklands War, not heroic or exciting, but ‘tedious, waiting, never moving, incomprehensible, dully painful, like toothache’. War means rain, snow, endless marching, ‘cutting through sheets of rain like mock-soldiers in an opera through large decors of gauze’, an action in which, ‘in the midst of it, we know nothing. We have lost track of the fighting’. Now and again he comes face to face with reality in the death of comrades, sometimes only reported, sometimes seen, and always grim and sickening. His experiences have left him numbed, with no belief in anything. He writes:
I told you I could believe in God but not imagine him. Imagination requires understanding, it requires the elements to build up an image, and I said I had none. To me He is a shapeless incoherent force, mad and senseless, inhuman as anything is inhuman, stone or water or fire. I believe in Him as I believe in fire and in the rain, relentlessly carrying on, among us but indifferent, unconcerned—because concern cannot be one of His qualities. Mercy, kindness, charity, benevolence, tenderness—He can feel nothing. Nor wrath, revenge, fury. He grows like a wave that crashes down by His sheer force, and we are dragged along behind, believing that when we ride the crest or are drowned in the depth there is a reason. In truth we are just carried away from wherever we happen to be, like seaweed.
This bleak philosophy echoes the bleakness of Enrique's short life, and reflects the truth and pain of the repression, callousness towards human life, and brutality in peace and war he has seen. This is a moving story, powerful in its spare, quiet prose, telling without self-pity or over-emphasis of events which go beyond heroism or glorification of suffering. The book ends with the simple statement: ‘Enrique Molina died in an ambush ten miles west of Port Stanley on Friday, 11 June 1982.’
Robert Lawrence, like Matthew in The Falklands Summer, began with a heroic dream of army life. At 16, he tells us in When the Fighting Is Over, he decided to join the Scots Guards. He says:
I saw my time in the Army as an opportunity to have a bit of a Boy's Own existence. The big thing that also appealed to me about it was that everything I did in the Army mattered. Every decision I made as a young man mattered … There are eighteen-year-olds running around in Northern Ireland, for instance, and if they make the wrong decision over something, someone else could get blown up tomorrow in Belfast or London.
The thought of this degree of responsibility given to boys just out of school is terrifying; for Robert Lawrence's story is not fiction. Though his attitude to the war is painfully close to that of Matthew in The Falklands Summer, it is actual experience. In his twenty-second year, Robert was on his way to the Falklands. What happened to him there was the subject both of Tumbledown, a television film by Charles Wood, and of this personal account ‘of the battle for Tumbledown Mountain and its aftermath’, written independently by Robert and his father, John.
It is disturbing to realise how unquestioningly Robert had been imbued with the conventional image of war and of the ‘macho’ male role fostered both by the media and by our public schools, the influence of whose view of ‘the glory of an early sacrificial death in battle’ has rightly been put under critical scrutiny by Peter Parker in The Old Lie.
By his own account, the sense of unreality, of being part of some heroic drama, accompanied Robert even to the battlefield. He writes:
And this is a very interesting aspect of war, I think, since the advent of television … the idea of this big circle, where people going to war find themselves acting as they have seen people act in films about people going to war.
Even during the skirmish on Tumbledown, he catches himself thinking ‘this was just like the movies’; while seconds before he was seriously wounded in the head, he ‘turned to Guardsman McEntaggart as we went along and, for some inexplicable reason, suddenly cried out, "Isn't this fun?"’ Yet not long before he had faced a reality which was grim enough, not ‘fun’, even to the eager young Guards officer. Coming upon an Argentinian, lying face down, he sticks his bayonet into the man's arm to find out if he is dead or alive.
He spun wildly on the ground, and my bayonet snapped. And as he spun, he was trying to get a Colt 45 out of an army holster on his waist. So I had to stab him to death. I stabbed him and I stabbed him, again and again, in the mouth, in the face, in the guts, with a snapped bayonet.
It was absolutely horrific. Stabbing a man to death is not a clean way to kill somebody, and what made it doubly horrific, was that at one point he started screaming ‘Please …’ in English to me. But had I left him he could have ended up shooting me in the back.
Neither this incident nor Robert's own wound belong with the fictional dream of a heroic war. The reality of pain, fear and the accompanying revulsion from ‘the killing fields’ is too strong. The reader notices, wryly, both the wildness of the stabbing, ‘in the mouth, in the face, in the guts’, and the ironic connotations of the phrase which comments, ‘not a clean way to kill somebody’; as though sanitizing the process could somehow have made it more acceptable.
Although he has ‘received a high-velocity bullet through the head leaving him with a six-by-two-inch hole in the skull and a significant hemiplegia of the left-hand side of the body which manifests itself in a paralysed left arm, a spastic left ankle and a certain amount of incontinence’, Robert nevertheless retains his idealised concept of war. He ‘envies those who were still on the Falklands’. While he ‘had missed out on all the fun’ they were ‘running around with all the Argentinian equipment. The victors. It would have been like Christmas.’
Christmas, ostensibly a time for the celebration of ‘peace on earth’, seems an odd choice of metaphor. The reader, indeed, becomes painfully aware of the naivety of this young man's outlook on war, even whilst being impressed at the same time by an almost incredible toughness of body and personal courage in face of irreversible disabilities. Yet greater courage was needed to come to terms with his anguish at the unexpectedly cool reception he met in England, where he was hustled out of sight because ‘they didn't want the severely injured people, the really badly burned and maimed young men, to be seen’. He says: ‘I'd wanted to come off that plane as a soldier—a heroic soldier, what's more, who had just helped to win a war. I was still pretty naive then, I suppose …’
It was the ingratitude of his reception at home, rather than his brief experiences of the battlefield, which disillusioned him; the indifference of the general public; the humiliation of being ignored and kept out of sight during the various victory celebrations; the heartless, petty bureaucracy which pursued him as he tried to get a disabled person's driving licence and a disability pension from the army. He says:
And I had, and still have, this white-hot pride. The kind of pride that the Army trains young soldiers to build up. The kind of pride that enables them to go off to war and fight and kill for what they are taught to believe in; principles like freedom of choice and of speech.
What I didn't realize, until, like so many others, I came back crippled after doing my bit for my country, was the extent to which we had been conned. Conned into believing in a set of priorities and principles that the rest of the world and British society in general no longer gave two hoots about. We had been ‘their boys’ fighting in the Falklands, and when the fighting was over, nobody wanted to know.
He adds: ‘People have been told how bloody the First World War was, and how bloody Vietnam was, but they have not been told how bloody the Falklands war was …’
It is a disturbing story, of a courageous and determined young man, fed by school and family tradition, and by fiction, film and television to regard war as ‘fun’, an opportunity to prove oneself, a ‘transition period from school to the real world’; who finds himself and his illusions made use of and then flung aside. But his experience raises fundamental questions which go far beyond his individual bitterness and trauma. And though he concludes: ‘I have a duty now, I believe, to inform my generation not only about what the fighting was like, but about what can happen to you if you get injured, in some sort of attempt to make them think twice about getting involved in another war’, few can doubt that the same inducements and the same betrayals await future young men, as ready as he to be ‘conned’ by ‘the old lie’.
For a final, brief, savagely satirical commentary on the Falklands War and its mythology we could turn to Raymond Briggs's picture book for readers of any age, The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman. Briggs does not name the place or the war-makers; but there is no mistaking the ‘sad little island … down at the bottom of the world’, inhabited only by poor shepherds who ‘spent all their time counting their sheep and eating them’. In this story neither the ‘tin-pot foreign general’ nor the ‘old iron woman’ are real; they are made of metal, not flesh. They only want to ‘bagsie the sad little island’ for their own aggrandisement, and care nothing for its fate, or for the fate of the soldiers who were to be shot, drowned, burned alive, blown to bits or only ‘half blown to bits’. ‘Hundreds of brave men were killed,’ we are told. ‘And they were all real men, made of flesh and blood. They were not made of Tin or Iron.’ At the end of the war, the poor shepherds are left still counting their sheep and eating them, but this time on a devastated island, littered with the debris of war, while a boat loaded with bodies returns the dead to their native land. The surviving soldiers of the winning side are given medals and included in a Grand Parade, ‘but the soldiers with bits of their bodies missing were not invited to take part in the Grand Parade, in case the sight of them spoiled the rejoicing’.
It is the pictures which make the most powerful impact in this excellent book. They are restrained, but vivid. The injured men and the families of the dead tending the graves are rendered in a soft pencil gray, which aptly indicates their sad retiring insignificance amidst the bright and brash colours of the banners and guns in the parade.
As a continuous background to these ‘live’ conflicts the second half of the century has been overshadowed by the ‘cold war’ between the super-powers, never flaring into direct confrontation, but nevertheless having unacceptable consequences for the rest of the world. Some of these have already been discussed in earlier chapters: but Jane Dibblin's book, Day of Two Suns, illustrates very clearly that although the nuclear arsenals relentlessly built up by the ‘Great Powers’ have not yet been used against an enemy, testing them has already disrupted peaceful communities and cost lives. The victims, whether soldiers or civilians, were not given medals or recognition for their ‘services’, and found it even more difficult than Robert Lawrence to extract compensation for their injuries. Unlike Lawrence, however, the Marshall Islanders had not been asked whether they wished to sacrifice their lives or their lands for a country not their own. Their subsequent history and that of the Polynesians under France and of the Australian Aborigines demonstrate clearly enough that where a powerful government's interests are concerned, the lives and well-being of individuals who happen to be in their way are of small account. Those ‘principles like freedom of choice and of speech’ for which Robert Lawrence was prepared to fight and die have had little meaning for these people. Whose freedom, they might well ask; whose choice?
Their experience and their warnings have relevance for us all. The Pacific is not the only place commandeered for tests, nor the only place where superports and military bases are sited, and submarines and bombers are deployed. Nor is it the only place where ‘the balance between nature and humankind’ is being destroyed ‘for the sake of a brief commercial gain’, where ‘alien colonial political and military domination’ persists, or ‘the racist roots of the world's nuclear powers’ are in evidence; all of which are rightly condemned in the People's Charter for a Nuclear Free World drawn up by the Marshall Islanders. Our environment, as well as theirs, ‘continues to be despoiled by foreign powers developing nuclear weapons for a strategy of warfare that has no winners, no liberators, and imperils the survival of all humankind’.
As Marjorie Mowlam reminds us (quoted in Thompson (ed.), Over Our Dead Bodies), decisions about nuclear power and nuclear weapons involve choices about how we want to live our lives. The ethos which supports the nuclear arms race is the same as that which fostered support for the Falklands War. It divides the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’, with the grim determination that ‘we’ shall stay on top whatever the cost. It is fed by fantasies of power, of glory, heroism and fame, though these at best are uncertain and transitory in any conventional war—and it is even more difficult to see what power or fame could survive a nuclear war.
Yet, as Caroline Moorehead sadly remarks in Troublesome People, conventional war, at least, remains, ‘as the Falklands War proved all over again, more exciting and more politically attractive than peace’. In her admirable account of pacifism this century in Britain, the United States, West Germany and Japan, she concludes that protests against both conventional and nuclear weapons have had little effect so far on militarism:
On this level, it is a story of almost pure failure. Thousands of men and women have gone to prison to uphold their opposition to war and armaments and they have altered virtually nothing. As an influence on military decisions, the women of Greenham, the Graswurzel revolution, the Berrigan community in Baltimore and those who track the great white train [carrying nuclear warheads] across America have been powerless. The world in 1986 is a more militant and a more dangerous place than it was in 1916.
In Day of Two Suns Jane Dibblin adds a further word of warning. The Marshall Islanders so far have chosen the route of determined but peaceful protest and struggle; but peaceful protest can itself finally turn to violence if repeatedly frustrated.
The European and North American peace movements have often assumed that non-violent direct action is a recent creation, inspired by Gandhi but with no wider roots. It is an assumption which ignores the Black civil rights movement in North America, the history of non-violent marches by Black South Africans and the support given to them by the mostly white ‘Black Sash’ women, the vigils of the mothers of the disappeared in Central and South America, and the protestors of Kwajalein atoll. It forgets that almost all of the liberation movements around the world which finally resorted to guns had struggled for years to make their point in every other way.
Nevertheless, as Caroline Moorehead more optimistically reminds us, there are still a few crumbs of comfort for peaceful protesters. Nuclear protest is still growing, is still peaceful, ‘and, arguably, in small ways at least, having an effect’. Moreover, she concludes:
The pacifists, the nuclear protesters, all those who take their individual stand against the machinery of war, are keeping alive the tradition of individual freedom; their importance can only grow. Conscience has not been altered by violence.
For such people, she adds, Thoreau's words in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, published in 1849 ‘well over a hundred years ago’, are still valid. Incurring ‘the penalty of disobedience to the state’, he declared, is a smaller price to pay than the loss of self-respect which would accompany silent acceptance of the state's war machine. The choice is ours.
Branfield, John, The Falklands Summer, London: Gollancz, 1987 (ages 12-15).
Briggs, Raymond, The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984 (9-adult).
Brooksbank, Anne, On Loan (Australia: McPhee Gribble Publishers and Penguin 1985), London: Puffin, 1988 (ages 12-14).
Cooper, Susan, Dawn of Fear (New York: Harcourt Brace 1970), London: Chatto & Windus, 1972, Puffin, 1974 (ages 10-12).
Dibblin, Jane, Day of Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders, London: Virago, 1988 (adult).
Lawrence, John and Robert, When the Fighting Is Over, London: Bloomsbury, 1988 (adult).
Lindsay, Rachel, The War Orphan, Oxford: OUP, 1984 (ages 12-14).
Moorehead, Caroline, Troublesome People: Enemies of War, 1916-1986, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987 (adult).
Needle, Jan, A Game of Soldiers, London: Collins (Fontana Lions) 1985 (ages 12-13).
Parker, Peter, The Old Lie: The Great War and the Public School Ethos, London: Constable, 1987 (adult).
Quiroga, Eduardo, On Foreign Ground, London: André Deutsch (Adlib Paperbacks) 1986 (ages 14-16).
Rosen, Billi, Andi's War, London: Faber, 1988 (ages 11-13).
Thompson, Dorothy (ed.), Over Our Dead Bodies, London: Virago, 1983 (adult).
Francis E. Kazemek (essay date spring 1996)
SOURCE: Kazemek, Francis E. "The Literature of Vietnam and Afghanistan: Exploring War and Peace with Adolescents." ALAN Review 23, no. 3 (spring 1996): 96-9.
[In the following essay, Kazemek expounds on how children's literature can illustrate the difficult realities of war through a study of young adult works related to the Vietnam War and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.]
As I write this essay, the Congress of the United States pursues a policy of isolationism. Whether it will be successful or not is questionable; the vicissitudes of politics are many. Nevertheless, there is a spirit abroad in Washington and across the nation that whispers seductively to us: "Turn your eyes inward and take care of your own. Let the dead of the world in Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Chechnya, and elsewhere bury their own dead. They are not your concern." Increasingly, we are learning how not to care for any but those close to us, and these circles of care grow smaller with each random act of violence, each perceived threat to our own economic security, and each political diatribe that separates the needs of the young from the old, white from black, women from men.
We are teaching our children and young adults not to care through our acts of commission and omission. Our curricula are based upon a "drive for academic adequacy" and not a moral purpose of "producing caring people" (Noddings, 1995, p. 366). We then turn to one another in surprise when our children and young adults learn and act upon what we teach them.
A curriculum of caring is one which helps students connect themselves to others in everwidening circles of understanding. It necessarily bridges the students' present to the past and to possible futures. It fosters empathy for the psychological Other, no matter how alien he or she might be from the students' own personal, racial/ethnic, and social contexts. Thus, such a curriculum must highlight our particular place within a stream of time that carries with it innumerable other places, people, and events.
There are various ways of developing such a curriculum, and I want to focus on the one I have spent my professional career advocating. Literature is not a panacea for our troubles, but for ages it has offered humankind a way of examining unquestioned assumptions, broadening understanding of other peoples and cultures, developing sympathy and compassion for the struggles of others, experiencing the common joys and sorrows that many people share, and seeing the world and ourselves differently, freshly. These might seem like oddly anachronistic and sentimental observations in a culture that thrives on the fetishism of Internet, virtual reality, and other "third wave" technologies, but since literature deals ultimately with soul, we ignore it at our own peril:
Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there but in despised poems. It is difficult to get news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
(Williams, 1988, p. 318)
Literature, including Williams' "despised poems," which focuses on a similar experience among people from different societies, can serve as a lens through which young adults are able to explore the world and perhaps come to see it with greater understanding and compassion. The one universal experience that has caused, and continues to cause, psychic, social, political, moral, and spiritual turmoil and soul-searching among people since time immemorial is war. In the rest of this essay I focus on the eerily-similar experiences of the United States and the ex-Soviet Union in their respective interventions in what were primarily civil wars: the U.S. in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975 and the ex-Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
Why Vietnam and Afghanistan?
I and others have argued that for the United States the Vietnam War might be considered the most traumatic event during the second half of this century. Its impact continues to be felt daily in the lives of its veterans and their families; it is seen in the faces of the homeless men on our streets; it is heard in the speeches and often vitriolic rantings that fill the halls of Congress; and the impact of Vietnam shapes our military planning and commitments, whether in Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, or Bosnia. (I daily clip from the newspaper articles or brief notices related in some way to the Vietnam War. During any one month I will fill my file folder with ten or more clippings, and this is twenty years after the fall of Saigon.)
The American public appears to have little desire to explore in any depth our involvement in Vietnam. This is true in spite of Robert McNamara's recent retrospective (McNamara, 1995), the great many books available on all aspects of the war, the serious movies that have come from Hollywood, and the various efforts made by television producers. We should not be surprised therefore if most high school and university students know very little about the war or if many elementary and secondary teachers likewise know little. (A thirty-year-old teacher was born the year President Johnson began to commit large numbers of troops to Vietnam.)
Similarly, relatively few people in the ex-Soviet Union know what happened in Afghanistan and why their sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands died there. There is little general understanding of the Afghanistan veterans, the Afgantsi, and the potential explosive force they represent in the various countries of the ex-Soviet Union. Only now are books and articles appearing which deal with the Afghan War. Participants are beginning to speak out; there is simmering bitterness; there are conflicting beliefs and opinions regarding these revelations; and Russian citizens are beginning to compare it to their present involvement in Chechnya.
It is possible to help young adults better understand the effects of the Vietnam War by exploring the literature which has emerged from it. When such an exploration is also connected to the literature of the war in Afghanistan, it provides complex and multiple perspectives of humankind. Together we and young adults can examine such themes as patriotism; loss of innocence in war; truth, lies, and deception from those in power; the terrible nature of combat; the necessity of dehumanizing the enemy in order to kill him; the resultant dehumanization of oneself; the short- and long-term psychological impacts of combat; and the efforts at spiritual and psychic healing.
Fallen Angels and Afghan Tales
There are many works of fiction and poetry available on the Vietnam War, which can help students gain a vicarious understanding of the experiences of those who participated in it. Some of these are brutally graphic and disturbing and might not be appropriate for 16-year-olds. One book that is especially appropriate for young adults is Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers (1988). This fine novel captures the combat experiences of a group of young men in Vietnam. It is highly-regarded by teachers and critics of adolescent literature, and most teenagers who read it readily connect with its richly drawn characters, vivid imagery, and powerful themes.
Afghan Tales: Stories from Russia's Vietnam by Oleg Yermakov (1993) provides a kaleidoscopic view of the Afghan War and its effects on both those who actually participated in it and those who remained at home. It serves, I believe, as a major work of connection to Vietnam for adolescents. It reflects and resonates the themes and images in Fallen Angels and, at the same time, provides deeper insights into the nature of war and its impact on soldiers and non-combatants. Moreover, it gives high school students a glimpse into the lives of people in the ex-Soviet Union. Let's look at both of these works in a little more detail.
We encounter in Fallen Angels young men, mostly teenagers, who recently had been sitting in highschool classrooms, playing basketball, and dreaming of the future. Suddenly they find themselves in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, where they are expected to kill other human beings or be killed. The deaths in which they participate and those they witness change them forever. Their fall from innocence and grace is heart-rending:
I had killed a man. I thought about how he looked, how I had felt. I remembered looking down at him, the M-16 in my hands, my forearms aching from the tension of holding it. I remembered looking down at him and feeling my own face torn apart.
(Myers, 1988, p. 182)
Similarly, the young draftee, Kostomygin, in the story "Baptism" from Afghan Tales faces the brutality of waging war upon villagers. During his first engagement he is pressured by his veteran comrades into killing a captured guerilla fighter. "He had fired a short burst into the broad chest of the hook-nosed man, and the man had fallen down, twisted in the dirt, blown scarlet bubbles from his nose, then stopped moving." Later he replays in his mind's eye the actual event: "But now everything was crystal-clear, like a film in slow motion" (Yermakov, 1991, pp. 28-29). The impact of his baptism into war is plain:
Kostomygin buffeted around on top of the shell-filled crates, took another drag from his cigarette, and he didn't want to die after a long, long time, after a thousand years. He wanted his heart to stop right then. But it didn't happen.
(Yermakov, 1991, p. 30)
The soldiers in Fallen Angels experience first-hand the inflated body-counts that were passed on to the American public as indications of our success in conducting the war. We see one root among several of the cynicism and mistrust of government and political leaders which eventually grew wildly out of control and presently obscures our vision and better sense. Similarly, the disillusioned Afghan vet, Pryadilnikov, in "The Yellow Mountain" refuses as a newspaper man to write about the "glories" of the war in Afghanistan; instead, he bitterly attacks the hypocrisy and deception of those responsible for the war. His sympathetic editor tells him that his writing is too subjective, gloomy, and negative. His articles need to include both the positive and the negative: "That's what objectivity means." Pryadilnikov replies that he's unihemispherical: "Only one hemisphere works, the pessimistic one; the optimistic one burst from dyspepsia" (Yermakov, 1991, p. 180).
The psychic necessity of turning the enemy into something less than human, into a "gook," "slope," or "shit," in order to be able to kill him is a theme that surfaces in much war literature. The narrator in "The Belles" from Afghan Tales observes, "We learned to smoke hash, to look doomed prisoners calmly in the eye, to not think of the future, to write dispassionate letters home" (Yermakov, 1991, p. 79). The street-smart and perceptive character named Peewee in Fallen Angels bluntly points out to the other members of his squad:
"You ain't killed nobody yet," Peewee said. "They gots to be people before you can kill them. You think these Congs is people? … See, they ain't people to you yet. You figure out all that shit, what they names is, what they like to eat, who do the dishes and shit like that, then they people. Then you shoot them you killing somebody."
(Myers, 1988, pp. 268-69)
The return home for both those who fought in Vietnam and Afghanistan was a sudden and precipitous one. Soldiers who one day were engaged in combat in Vietnam often found themselves days later stepping off a plane in California and boarding a train or bus for, say, Iowa. There were no parades or ceremonies, and there was no counseling. Many experienced hostility from those opposed to the war if not the indifference Myers describes as the two wounded young men are flying back to the United States:
Peewee stirred in his uneasy sleep. The plane droned on. A fat man complained that they didn't have the wine he wanted. We were headed back to the World.
(Myers, 1988, p. 309)
The "demobs" from Afghanistan faced an even more difficult transition from battle ground to home ground. They were flown to Tashkent, Uzbekistan and expected to find their own way home. Since most of the soldiers who fought in Afghanistan were from the western republics of the Soviet Union, for example, Russia and Ukraine, they had to make a long and tedious journey. "A Feast on the Bank of a Violet River" describes the welcome that a small group of veterans receive in Tashkent. They are ignored and unable to get plane or train tickets for at least a week. When they try to get on a train, the conductor kicks them off and screams at them, "Shitbags!" (Yermakov, 1991, p. 139). This story beautifully captures the brotherhood that will have to carry the men into an indifferent, if not hostile, civil life.
The physical, psychic, and spiritual torments that many veterans from the Vietnam War faced, and often still face, upon their reentry into civilian life is a reality that adolescents need to explore. The men and women still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, alienation, and other psychological and physical illnesses are fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, friends, and neighbors. Fallen Angels foreshadows PTSD among the young soldiers.
I recorded in my daily journal the bitter words of a veteran I had come to know while on a faculty exchange to Odessa State University in Odessa, Ukraine a few years ago. He had been drafted into the Soviet Army and spent two years in Uzbekistan guarding prisoners. He still was struggling with the effects of drugs ("the guards on duty with machine guns would be high"); drunkenness; health effects from the water, food, and pollution; racial fights between the European and Asian Soviet soldiers; and the "constant humiliation" inflicted upon him by his superiors. The marvelous ending to "The Yellow Mountain" presents a similarly embittered and disillusioned veteran's reconciliation with life and redemption through a return to the pastoral mountain setting from his youth.
Making Broader and Deeper Connections
Fallen Angels is a fine, accessible work with which to introduce adolescents to the complexity of the Vietnam War. The themes I briefly described above and various others can be explored through a serious study of the novel. Afghan Tales is a much more complex and sophisticated work, and it allows for a similar exploration of the above-mentioned themes. It also provides, however, an opportunity for young adults to consider the impact of combat on loved ones back home and on the turmoil individuals faced before and after the war. Afghan Tales is a powerful book that deserves attention along with the best literature coming from the Vietnam War.
Fallen Angels and Afghan Tales can lead to further study of these two wars in particular and war in general. Other works on Vietnam that I have found useful with adolescents and undergraduates include the following. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990) is a complex, yet extremely readable, novel composed of a number of war stories. "How to Tell a True War Story" from this novel is sometimes found in anthologies for high school and college students. In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason (1985) is a powerful novel for adolescents which deals with a young woman's struggle to understand the Vietnam War and her father who died there.
Kathryn Marshall's In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam (1987) and Al Santoli's Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It (1981) are only two of many oral histories that allow young adults to hear the voices of people who served in Vietnam. Santoli's is among the best, if not the best. Lastly, Bao Ninh's recently published The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam (1995) is a haunting novel written by a man who served in North Vietnam's Glorious 27th Youth Brigade and today lives in Hanoi. Several university freshmen and sophomores in my class on Vietnam have found it fascinating; they especially appreciate the way it presents the conflict through the eyes of a North Vietnamese soldier.
Carrying the Darkness: American Indochina: The Poetry of the Vietnam War edited by W. D. Ehrhart (1985) and Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans edited by Rottmann, Barry, and Paquet (1972) contain a range of poetry by both combatants and non-combatants, Vietnamese and American, that will be valuable for exploration in the high school classroom.
Unfortunately, there is very little available on the war in Afghanistan that is appropriate for adolescents. One book that I do like is Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich (1992), and it would make a viable companion to Afghan Tales. Zinky Boys is a collection of oral histories from soldiers, civilian employees, nurses, doctors, and others who went to Afghanistan; it also contains interviews with widows of the war, mothers whose sons served and died, and the author's own diary reflections. At the end of the book Alexievich includes excerpts from letters and phone calls she received after the book was published in Russia: some are supportive while others are angry and hostile.
Parallels: The Soldiers' Knowledge and the Oral History of Contemporary Warfare (1992) is a collection of oral histories that resulted from a project which brought together Vietnam veterans and those from the war in Afghanistan. The stories, reflections, and torments that surfaced as the two groups of men shared with one another are often harsh and disturbing. The teacher of adolescents can profitably use this collection since it explicitly connects the two wars and the veterans' similar experiences; however, s/he would be wise to select the pieces carefully. The language and imagery are often unsettling.
What are we teaching our young adults about Vietnam? How are we helping them connect it to the terrible impact of other wars in other countries, for example, the Soviet war in Afghanistan? How are we fostering a curriculum of caring and compassion through a critical study and understanding of history and its relation to today and tomorrow? Regardless of what we might think of Robert McNamara or his recent book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lesson of Vietnam (1995), we cannot dismiss his stated purpose:
I want Americans to understand why we made the mistakes we did, and to learn from them. I hope to say, "Here is something we can take away from Vietnam that is constructive and applicable to the world of today and tomorrow."
(McNamara, 1995, p. xvii)
Sympathetic, if not empathetic, understanding of those affected by war, both combatants and non-combatants, those engaged in it and those opposed to it, is best developed, I believe, through the literature that comes from it. Fiction, poetry, and oral histories allow students to enter into the lives of those who were impacted by war. When historical texts are brought to life by being paired with the flesh, blood, bone, and spirit of literature, our students are then better able to explore critically the past with both their heads and their hearts.
In the conclusion to their moving account of one horrible battle in Vietnam, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam (1992), Moore and Galloway observe:
School children no longer memorize the names and dates of great battles, and perhaps that is good; perhaps that is the first step on the road to a world where wars are no longer necessary. Perhaps. But we remember those days and our comrades, and long after we are gone that long blue [battle] streamer will still caress proud flags.
(Moore and Galloway, 1992, p. 409)
We are helping to develop children and young adults who reject wars as necessary but who also understand what led to them and why they were fought. Literature can help us do that. But more, literature can help all of us, children and adults alike, expand our circles of caring to include those both near to us and those afar. Perhaps then we might be more able to avoid wars in the future. Perhaps.
Alexievich, Svetlana. Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War. Translated by Julia and Robin Whitby. Norton, 1992.
Ehrhart, W. D., Ed. Carrying the Darkness: American Indochina: The Poetry of the Vietnam War. Avon, 1985.
Hansen, J. T., A. Susan Owen, and Michael Patrick Madden. Parallels: The Soldiers' Knowledge and the Oral History of Contemporary Warfare. Aldine de Gruyter, 1992.
Marshall, Kathryn. In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam, 1966-1975. Little Brown, 1987.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. In Country. Harper & Row, 1985.
McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Times Books, 1995.
Moore, Harold G., & Galloway, Joseph L. We Were Soldiers Once … and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam. HarperCollins, 1992.
Myers, Walter Dean. Fallen Angels. Scholastic Books, 1988.
Ninh, Bao. The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. Pantheon Books, 1995.
Noddings, Nel. "A Morally Defensible Mission for Schools in the 21st Century." Phi Delta Kappan, 76, 1995, pp. 365-68.
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Rottmann, Larry, Barry, Jan, & Paquet, Basil T., Eds. Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. McGraw-Hill, 1972.
Santoli, Al. Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It. Random House, 1981.
Williams, William Carlos. "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." In The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Volume II 1939-1962, 1988, pp. 310-37.
Yermakov, Oleg. Afghan Tales: Stories from Russia's Vietnam. Translated by Marc Romano. William Morrow, 1993.
Bosmajian, Hamida. "Doris Orgel's The Devil in Vienna: From Trope into History." Children's Literature 28 (2000): 112-31.
Discusses how Doris Orgel's personal history guides the plot and emotional core of the Nazi/Jewish relationships in her fictional World War II novel The Devil in Vienna.
James, David L. "Recent World-War-II Fiction: A Survey." Children's Literature in Education 8, no. 2 (June 1977): 71-9.
Provides a critical bibliography of several works of World War II-themed historical fiction.
Smedman, M. Sarah. "Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain: Authentic History, Classic Fiction." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume One, edited by Perry M. Nodelman, pp. 83-95. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1985.
Examines the enduring strengths of Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain as a work of juvenile historical fiction.
Taxel, Joel. "The American Revolution in Children's Books: Issues of Race and Class." In How Much Truth Do We Tell the Children?, edited by Betty Bacon, pp. 157-72. Minneapolis, Minn.: MEP Publications, 1988.
Observes how issues of race and class have been addressed in works of juvenile historical fiction set during the American Revolutionary War, concluding that many of these texts misrepresent certain historical truths of the era.
Whyte, Pádraic. "Wars of Independence: The Construction of Irish Histories in the Work of Gerard Whelan and Siobhán Parkinson." In Studies in Children's Literature, 1500-2000, edited by Celia Keenan and Mary Shine Thompson, pp. 120-29. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2004.
Studies the young adult works of Gerard Whelan and Siobhán Parkinson who set several of their books during the early-twentieth-century battles for nationhood in Ireland.