Saturday 2 August 2014

When our Jack went to war by Sandy McKay

When our Jack went to war by Sandy McKay (Longacre, 2013)

ISBN 978 1 77553 309 2

192 pages

Subjects: World War One, France, Belgium, England, letters, Messines, Ypres, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

When our Jack went to war is described on the title page as “a fictional story based on a real-life event”. It is dedicated to “Private John McIntosh, 27553, 2nd Battalion Otago Regiment, NZEF” who was the author’s great uncle, killed in action in 1917.

In Sandy McKay’s story, her great uncle John becomes the “Jack” of the title, and the narrator is his younger brother Tom, who is twelve when Jack leaves his carpenter’s apprenticeship and signs up in 1916. Many of Jack’s friends sign up at the same time: Ted, Cyril, Stuart, Billy. The rest of the family consists of their mother and Tom’s younger sister Amy; their father had died a year or two earlier, soon after the war began. 

The story is told in Tom’s voice, interspersed with Jack’s letters and (real) newspaper clippings and other notices. Jack’s first letters are from Trentham Training Camp; then from the troop ship on the way to England, Sling Camp on Salisbury Plain, a trip on leave to London and Scotland and finally the trenches of the Western Front. He is wounded and sent to recover at a hospital in England, but then goes back to the front line again. Meanwhile Tom’s letters tell about his own school and home life.

The newspaper clippings include descriptions of the battles (not always the same as Jack’s descriptions), casualty lists and articles about conscientious objectors. Headlines give glimpses into little known aspects of the war at home; stories like “Disloyal utterance – indiscretion in railway carriage” (a man who made use of “language calculated to interfere with recruiting” by claiming “a man is a *** fool for going to the front”), “Drawing of first ballot” (for conscription)  or “Refusing to parade” (a man who was a Quaker, and “objected to service” as a conscientious objector.)

The dialogue, slang and domestic details of the time ring true (Jack’s letters are kept “in a biscuit tin on the shelf in the kitchen, right next to the hook for his nail bag”.) At the end is a factual section titled What do you know about the First World War?

You can read a review of the book on Bobs books blog. Bob says: "The last 15 pages will wrench your heart out."

Teaching notes are also available here and include a great set of suggestions for creative or research responses.  

Author’s website
Sandy McKay's website is here

You can also read about her on the NZ Book Council site and the Christchurch City Libraries Interviews with NZ children's authors

New Zealand connections:

In the acknowledgements, Sandy McKay makes special mention of the Papers Past website of the National Library. This really is an amazing resource. At present it covers from 1839 to 1945, and includes 90 publications from all over the country, but more newspapers - and newspaper issues - are being added all the time. 

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