Friday 7 June 2013

The silver donkey by Sonya Hartnett

The silver donkey by Sonya Hartnett (Viking, 2004)

ISBN 0 670 04240 4

18 chapters; 192 pages with about 10 full page black and white illustrations

Subjects: World War One, France, deserters, animals, fable, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

This story is set in northern France, near the coast, sometime during the battles fought along the Western Front during World War One. 

Two sisters, Coco and Marcelle, find a soldier hiding in the woods, desperate to get back to his sick brother in England. The trauma of war has left him temporarily blind. Together with their older brother Pascal and a friend, Fabrice, the girls concoct a plan to help him. The two of them are delightful, especially Coco who is entranced by the soldier’s tiny silver donkey (there is a lovely passage where she imagines riding away on it.) Pascal, on the other hand, would prefer to hear gruesome first-hand accounts of the war, “a tale about machine-guns and bayonets.”

Interspersed with the main narrative are four stand-alone stories, told by the soldier, three of them with a donkey theme: Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem, a legend about why storm clouds are grey and the tale of the “donkey man” at Gallipoli (although again the place is not mentioned.)  

The story is beautifully told in almost poetic language. One plot detail that bothered me was that the soldier would still be treated as a deserter when he reached England, so he was not really escaping to safety.  But this is partly because details are often left vague, and the story has an almost dreamlike quality of “fable”. The book is asking questions about the nature of bravery and courage and the sort of qualities that really matter, like the donkey’s qualities of loyalty, humility, gentleness, trustworthiness and steadfastness.

The silver donkey was made into a musical by the Australian team of Dean Bryant and Matthew Frank, and the production toured Australia and  the USA in 2006. You can see a clip from it here on Youtube. 


Charm under fireSonya Hartnett's The Silver Donkey shows that life in wartime offers surprising opportunities. Another review is here: The silver donkey by Sonya Hartnett

You can also find teacher's notes for the book here

  • What do you think is the answer to Fabrice’s question (in the chapter called Heroes): “Do you really have a brother… Or is he a ghost made of wishes and fear, someone you invented to disguise your shame in fleeing a war which other men… have stayed behind to fight?"
  • Do you think the Lieutenant did the right thing when he lay beside the dying Ernie Whittaker? What else could he have done? How do you think he felt afterwards?
  • What does the silver donkey represent?
  • Why don’t we ever learn the Lieutenant’s real name?
  • Who is a “hero” in this book? What is heroism?

Author’s website:
Sonya Hartnett is an Australian writer. 

Her other war-related children’s books include Children of the King (2012),  a time-overlap adventure about three children sent to the countryside to escape the war in London, and The midnight zoo (2010) (“Under cover of darkness, two brothers cross a war-ravaged countryside carrying a secret bundle. One night they stumble across a deserted town reduced to smouldering ruins. But at the end of a blackened street they find a small green miracle: a zoo filled with animals in need of hope.”)

Other books you might like:
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo also deals with the topic of army deserters and how they were treated.

New Zealand connections:
Desertion was treated as a crime by the army and could be punished by  court-martial and execution.  On pg 47 of Anzac Day: the New Zealand story is a section called “Pardoned at last”. This tells the story of the men who were court-martialled for mutiny or desertion, often because they were suffering from undiagnosed shell shock. Many of these men had fought bravely in other parts of the war but had just reached the limit of what they could endure. Their deaths were seen as terribly shameful for their families and often they were not talked about for years.

In England, there is a memorial  to some of these young men from Britain and the Commonwealth at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

File:Shot at Dawn memorial.JPG
Called the Shot At Dawn Memorial, it contains a statue of a young man ­blindfolded and strapped to a post, surrounded by 306 other posts, each with the name, age and ­regiment of a man who was executed.

In 2000, the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act was passed to pardon the five NZ soldiers who were subsequently shot. You can read more about the Act here and hereThe medals and certificate of pardon for one of the soldiers, Victor Spencer, were later gifted to the Bluff Maritime Museum

Of the five soldiers listed, two were born in Australia and their story is told further here:
ANZAC tragedies revealed after 80 years: the stories of Private John Sweeney and Frank Needs / John King , both Australians who signed up in NZ, and served bravely in Gallipoli but were charged with desertion in France and shot. (It’s interesting to note that Australian never allowed its own soldiers to be shot, perhaps because the AIF was made up of volunteers  - conscription was voted against twice by the Australian public during World War One - and the public outcry would have been huge. But these two men had signed up for the NZ army.) 

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