Image credit: PBS http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/great-war/
Yesterday I gave you suggestions of nonfiction to read. Today it is fiction.
The Poem and the Poppy
Poppies photo from The Guardian Massimo Crisafi/GuardianWitness
In Flanders Field the poppies blow…. the most famous poem of the war begins with those words. Poppies, in Britain and the British Commonwealth are the symbol of the war and remembrance of veterans in general. The art installation, Field of Poppies, shows one poppy for every man killed from Britain and it’s then Empire (Commonwealth). In Flanders Field by Linda Granfield.
Once An Eagle, such a magnificent work that it has been assigned reading for American Army officers, tells the story of two young officers from their beginnings thru the end of their careers in both peace time and in both world wars. The man from humble origins, Sam Damon, and the priviledged officer of the old aristocratic mien, Courtney Massengale, are symbolic of all such officers. Those who put in decades without promotion in the underfunded, undermanned post-Civil War, post-Spanish American War American Army. Anyone who seeks to understand the American Army needs to read this book. The 1970s tv version, in spite of Sam Elliott playing Sam Damon, wasn’t the greatest and it did take liberties with the story. Once An Eagle by Anton Myrer.
A Star for Mrs. Blake is a sweet story of a mother’s post-war journey to visit her only son’s grave. We forget how big a part in life mourning the dead was in days past. This war was the first in which the bodies of soldiers were not sent home for burial for the most part. Even former President Theodore Roosevelt’s son and King George V’s (English) cousin, Prince Maurice of Battenberg, were buried with the other soldiers in France or Belgium. World War I saw the creation and and solemn recognition of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the U.S. (and similar monuments elsewhere) and the Old Guard standing watch round the clock in Arlington Cemetery. Armistice Day (Veteran’s Day) and Remembrance Day (in the U.K. and Commonwealth) were all created to memorialize the dead of this war. A Star For Mrs. Blake by April Smith. You can read my original review here. (Scroll down in the post).
War Horse became a sensation when it hit the London stage and then the movie was made. A wonder of special stage effects and robotics, the audience at one performance was stunned when a white haired, elderly lady and her equally creaky husband sneaked in second before the curtain went up. A few weeks later the same thing happened with a tall, balding young man and his cover-girl wife. Yes the Queen and Prince Philip and then William and Catherine stopped in to see the show. I like the think that Granny convinced William to go, don’t you?
Anyway, before there was a play or a movie there was the book. It’s target audience is young people, but it is a book for any age. Like with the boy soldiers, it is hard for us today to realize that most of the horses (which were still widly used for transportation and farming) were commandeered as were most private automobiles in Britain. This might be difficult for Americans. But just like in fictional Downton Abbey, great houses were also commandeered and many were returned in shameful condition. American children of today may not understand this. No matter, I loved every minute of the fabulous audio version. War Horse by Michael Morpurgo.
I found this book one Christmas in the 90’s as a gift for my nephew. I’ve been in love with it ever since. I even went back and bought my own copy. Like War Horse, this is about the fighting. In this case a young boy receives wooden toy soldiers his father carves in downtime in the trenches from scraps of branches or whatever. Another idea that may be hard to realize is how close Britain was to the fighting. A letter posted to the front generally got there the next day. So, the toy soldiers made it across the English Channel from France in good time. Through the expressions of the soldiers Johnny learns the terrible truth of war. This is a well done book–it is not a horror story. The Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence.
[Please ignore the cheesy cover]. If you loved Anne of Green Gables, but weren’t aware it was a long series of books, then you are in for a treat! Book 8, Rilla of Ingleside, is the story of Anne’s daughter teenage daughter,’Rilla (who wishes, unfathomably, that she’d been named “Bertha” instead!), and the boys in her life who leave Canada to fight for King and Empire in the war. One pens an iconic poem that symbolizes the generation. I love this part ofthe story most, for poetry and music were so important to this generation–very much like today’s rap-writing generation. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
The Christmas Truce
The classic from the German side is, of course, All Quiet on the Western Front, which has been made into a movie a time or two, as well.
The New Book Review
I LOVED Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, so I was very eager to read the Summer Before the War when it came out. I immediately got it on audio and started listening. I loved it and so rushed out and did something I never do–I bought the hardback (I do buy fiction but only in paperback). Then something terrible happened. I lost the book. I found months later, then stumbled on the audio back on the library shelf when I was out of audio books. This week I finished the book.
The Story: Beatrice arrives in the town of Rye to take a teaching position vacated by a man who has enlisted. She meets Hugh and Daniel and a boy nicknamed “Snout”. Later a Belgian girl is added when she arrives as a refugee.
The Good: I loved the gentle tone of the story, the costume drama aspects of it. I genuinely liked Beatrice, Daniel and Hugh. I enjoyed the way the “locals” banded together at one point in the story (no spoilers).
The Bad: I felt the story got bogged down in a spate of modern day tut-tutting over “look how horrid we were back then to this group, that group and another group.” This is seems to be necessary to be published today. Dickie–aka “Snout” is Romany, various young men might, or might not be in love, and the poor refugee is a pregnant, unmarried girl. The treatment they received in that era IS despicable, but I am really tired of being beat over the head with the mea culpas over past maltreatment in fiction except for genocide. We’d all love to change history, to make it humane, but we cannot. This bloated the book and lost the trail of the story for a little while and that hurt it overall.
It is hard to realize today that the British Army still enlisted “boy soldiers” at 14 (the Navy took boys at 14, too–I met such a man who got his first long trousers upon enlistment right after he turned 14) or that in wartime soldiers can/were (maybe still are?) shot for desertion. Shot. By fellow soldiers under orders from a commanding officer. No, “but he’s a good person,” just a summary court martial and a squad of riflemen to do the deed. Sometimes merely one officer with a pistol. Animals, too, were not treated lightly. There is one sad scene that illustrates this, but it is short and, for the time, humane.
3.5 stars. Better editing and less concern for political correctness would have made it an easy 4 star book. But it was too long due to the p.c. chorus.