Tuesday 3 September 2013

Lord of the nutcracker men by Iain Lawrence

Lord of the nutcracker men by Iain Lawrence (Collins, 2002)
Cover sub title: When war’s not a game any more

21 chapters; 269 pages 

Subjects: World War One, France, England, family, deserters, toys, evacuees, letters, Christmas, armistice, truce, Angel of Mons, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Johnny’s father is a toymaker, “the finest in London.” He makes “miniature castles and marionettes, trams and trains and carriages”; even a hobby horse for Princess Mary to ride through Buckingham Palace. For Johnny’s 9th birthday, his father gives him an army of nutcracker men, “the most wonderful thing that Dad ever made.” He never made another set like them. “’They’re one of a kind,’ he said. ’Those are very special ones, those.’”

A year later, in 1914, war breaks out. For Johnny, it starts with the local German shopkeepers and workers – butcher, shoemaker, barber, doorman, waiter – being forced to leave the neighbourhood with their families. Men rush to sign up, but Johnny’s father, at 5’7”, is an inch too short (“even though he seemed like a giant to me.”) But very soon the height requirement is lowered to 5’5”, and he sets off for war, telling Johnny that he will be back home in time for Christmas, just ten weeks away. “It seemed forever,” Johnny thinks.

Johnny’s father doesn’t reappear in person for the rest of the book, but he speaks to Johnny through his letters. They start arriving almost at once, the first one sent from the training camp, dated 25 October 1914.

Because of the danger to London, Johnny’s mother sends him to stay with his father’s sister, Aunty Ivy – “Prickly Ivy” – who lives in a small village called Cliffe, on the edge of the Thames marshes. (“Just until Christmas, of course.  Just until the war is over.”) 

Johnny travels there on his own on the train, taking with him his nutcracker men and toy soldiers. At first he hates Aunty Ivy’s house, the school and the other local children, but gradually he settles into the life of the village. He makes friends with Sarah, whose father is a lieutenant in the army, and has extra classes with Mr Tuttle, the school master, who teaches him about Homer and draws parallels between the Homeric wars and the battle raging across the Channel. There is added mystery in the appearance of a sergeant, dressed in tattered clothes, who only ever appears to Johnny and who seems to know his father from when they were boys together.

The letters keep arriving, from both of his parents. Johnny’s mother goes to work at the arsenal in Woolwich, stuffing artillery shells. His father whittles soldiers from wood and sends them with his letters, so that soon Johnny builds up his own wooden army of German nutcracker men, French Pierres and British Tommies, even an aeroplane and an ambulance. 

The last letter in the book, dated 26 December 1914, describes the Christmas truce between the German and British soldiers all along the front lines. (I did find it unlikely that one of their old neighbours would have end up in the opposing trench, but the description of the truce overall is very moving.) 

There are so many remarkable things about this book (which is another one I’d never read before starting this blog.) Firstly, the precise and melodic use of language, especially in descriptions of the weather and the things that Johnny notices around the village. When the church bells ring to celebrate a victory, they “went on and on, their sounds flowing on top of each other, cascading down like musical rivers.”  When Johnny looks up to the sky, “the clouds were grey blotches tumbling past to the east, as scattered as cows in a field.” At night he can hear the French guns, “faint but furious, a steady drumming of low-pitched pops and puffs.” And on a frosty winter’s morning, “everything sparkled and glittered, and the air was as crisply cool as peppermints.”

Secondly, the completely child-centred and non-condescending view of “play” in the battles that Johnny (and sometimes Sarah) play with his toy soldiers, and the way in which the perspective changes, as they become engrossed, so they are outside and inside the game at the same time. 

Thirdly, the relationships between Johnny and his parents, and between Johnny, Aunty Ivy and Mr Tuttle. One reviewer felt that some of the letters written by Johnny's father were too graphic for what a man would send to his ten-year-old son. But many of them are deep expressions of love, like this one: “Just a very quick note to let you know that I’m thinking about you always.  If anything should happen to me, and for some reason I don’t get to see you for a long, long time, then I want you to remember that I think the whole world of you, son.”

There is a review here on the QBD bookshop site. 

Here's another review on the quaintly named blog: wear the old coat (and buy the new book)
I like this blogger (Jo's) comments about the book:
This was one of those rare, wonderful books that you read without knowing anything about.
The idea of the book fascinated me: a toy maker is drafted to the trenches and sends carved soldiers that he sees to his ten year old son, Johnny, back in England. As Johnny collects the toy soldiers and creates an army to fight back the strong nutcracker soldiers that his dad made him before he went, he notices that the battles he makes up in the mud under the beech tree are becoming more like the ones that his dad writes about.
Doesn’t that sound like a brilliant and unique way of telling a story about a boy whose dad is fighting in WW1?
And it really was.

I loved how Mr Lawrence introduced an extremely subtle yet intriguing element of magic within this story. As he states in his author’s note at the end: “There was something about the Great War that inspired the belief in the supernatural”. Whether this was the sightings of apparitions of English archers protecting the soldiers from the Germans on the same ground as they did against the French centuries earlier, ghostly soldiers or the famous case of the Angel of Mons. I thought the mystery behind what was really happening with those wooden soldiers and their influence was in equal measures unnerving and poignant.

Author’s website:
You can read about Iain Lawrence, his life and the other books he has written here and here

Born in northern Canada to British emigrant parents, he left school early to work in a logging camp, and later became a journalist without ever losing the desire to write. His early work was rejected but then he found his niche in children’s and YA fiction.
In the Author’s note, he tells how his mother’s three uncles went off to the First World War and were all taken prisoner. His grandfather lied about his age to sign up at 17, was hit by shrapnel and lost an arm later in the war. 

Other books you might like:
Archie’s war: my scrapbook of the First World War 1914-1918 by Marcia Williams also tells the story of a ten-year-old London boy. Like Johnny, Archie gets evacuated to the country, but his book – told in scrapbook form – covers the whole war, whereas Johnny’s runs mostly from August 1914 (the outbreak of war) to December 1914 (the first Christmas.)

War game by Michael Foreman describes a game of football played during the famous Christmas truce between the German and Allied soldiers.  

Things I didn’t know:
  • I had never heard of Cliffe, but it is a real village in Kent with its own Facebook page.
  • I didn’t know that mail from the front was delivered so quickly. It took only two or three days for a letter to travel in either direction.  “The battle field, for many British soldiers, was so close to home that it was heartbreaking.
  • I didn’t know about Regent’s Park. “Labourers arrived with lorries full of pipe and wire, and they laid a line of lampposts through the middle of the park… the soldiers said the lamps were going to fool the Kaiser when he sent his zeppelins over London. ‘From up there it will look like the busiest street in the city,’ they said. ‘The zepps will aim for that, and all they’ll hit is grass.’
  • I didn’t know about the dangers to women working in the Woolwich Arsenal
Woolwich lies east of Greenwich, and at the start of World War One, thousands of workers were employed at the Royal Arsenal, most of them men. However, men were needed on the front line, and it became one of the few places where it was acceptable for women to carry out war work. Conditions were poor and could be dangerous. The women who filled and handled explosives were known as “canaries” because it turned their hair and skin bright yellow. This was called “yellow jaundice” and many women died from it, from 1916 on.
You can read more about it here and here

Making the Modern World
Packing cartridge cases at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.© Imperial War Museum Q27880

  • I had heard about the Angel of Mons, but didn’t know the details. 

I've ended up writing a lot about this book, but it was different from any other children's war book I've read before, and I really enjoyed reading it.  


  1. can you give more information about Johnny's mother please.

  2. Hi Iorina, there is some more info here and some photos of the women (like Johnny's mother) who worked in the munitions factories - http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-26225744