Tuesday 8 July 2014

1914: Riding into war by Susan Brocker

1914: Riding into war by Susan Brocker (Scholastic, 2014)

ISBN 978-1-77543-206-7

216 pages with some notes and photos at the end

Subjects: World War One, Egypt, Gallipoli, Mounted Rifles, horses, young adult fiction (Year 8-11)

riding into war

The first thing you notice about this book is the striking cover, with the large embossed “1914”, the barbed wire pattern and the dramatic picture, which immediately tells you that horses are going to play a big part in this story. 

Seventeen-year-old Billy Bowman is old enough to be working on a farm, but young enough to be nicknamed “Billy the Kid” by the older farmworkers, who scoff at the idea of him signing up with the rest of them when war is declared in August 1914. But Billy’s mate Jack reckons “the enlistment age is just for city slickers who can’t ride or shoot”, and they are country boys who can do both. Sure enough, Billy is accepted by the recruitment officer – as long as his parents agree – and soon he and Jack are off with their horses to join the Mounted Rifles at the Awapuni Training Camp near Palmerston North.

The story of how the New Zealand troops got to war is sometimes overshadowed by the events that followed, but is fascinating in itself: the farewell dances, the weeks of training and drills, more farewells at the wharves, the long sea voyages (with the added difficultly here of keeping the horses in good shape), the exotic stopovers, the passage through the Suez Canal and the final arrival in Egypt. This section takes up about a third of the book and the details about caring for the horses on board are especially convincing.

Once in Egypt, there are more weeks of training in the desert before they are sent to Gallipoli - without their horses - after the first landings in April, but in time for the battle of Chunuk Bair in August 1915. The author manages to fit a lot of details about the Gallipoli campaign: the May armistice to bury the bodies, the torpedoing of the British battleship Triumph, the jam pot grenades, the periscope rifles, the awful food. These books are aimed at readers from 12+ but the language is mild with no expletives worse than “Jeez”. 

The focus is kept tightly on Billy, his mate Jack and their nemesis Chopper (“a tall, heavy-set man in his late twenties”, who calls him “Billy Boy” and “a little squirt”.) Other soldiers are there in the background but are seldom named. Billy exchanges letters with Alice, the daughter of the farm owner, although as the months go by, he finds there is more and more that he can’t tell her.

There is a map at the front – very important for tracing the troops' journey to Egypt and beyond (school visits have showed me that children might know about the Anzac landings at Gallipoli, but often don’t know where Gallipoli is – their guesses range from Germany to Russia.) The book also includes a timeline, glossary and bibliography at the back. (I looked for, but couldn’t find any details of the cover art on the front and back covers.)

Kiwis at War
This is the first title in Scholastic’s new Kiwis at War series, which will eventually consist of five books based on events for each year of World War One. (The events in this book carry over into 1915, which is understandable, given that the troops didn’t leave New Zealand until October 1914.) The other books in the series – each to be released in their centenary year - will be written by Diana Menefy (1915), David Hair (1916), Brian Falkner (1917) and Des Hunt (1918).

One of the interesting features about this series is that, while individually written (and perfectly readable as standalone texts), the five titles will be linked by characters who appear in more than one book. I love the idea of this collaboration amongst the authors, each working on their own story but also finding ways to create connections between them.

Susan’s book is to be launched on August 4th (exactly 100 years after the declaration of war), and the launch for each of the other books will also be tied in to a significant date. I’m looking forward to reading them, and to seeing if my guess about the “link” character in this book is correct.

Author’s website
On Susan Brocker's website, she says: “My favourite books are stories I’ve written about my favourite things, such as horses, dogs and animals of all sorts. I also love bringing history alive and making it exciting – and sometimes the two come together in novels like The Drover’s Quest and Brave Bess.”

This book is another example of the two things coming together. I can’t think of a better person to have chosen to write this story. Susan’s knowledge of history, her love of horses and her understanding of their needs and and personalities all come through clearly on every page.

Susan also has a Facebook author page, and you can read more about her on the Bookrapt site and the Storylines site. There is also an interview with her on the wonderful Christchurch City Libraries section on Interviews with NZ authors

Other books you might like:
If you like this book, you are sure to enjoy reading others that Susan has written. Brave Bess and the ANZAC horses (Harper Collins, 2010) is subtitled “a true story of courage and loyalty” – the qualities shown by the thousands of horses that were sent overseas with the New Zealand troops to face heat, stress, thirst, hunger, exhaustion, disease and injury in the deserts of the Middle East. Dreams of Warriors (Harper Collins, 2010), set in Featherston in World War Two, features fourteen-year-old Bella, who is trying to help save their family farm while her father is away at war, and also coping with a crazy bad-tempered horse called Gipsy. 

The horses didn’t come home by Pamela Rushby tells the story of Harry and his friend Jack, both aged 16, who set off for war with the Australian Light Horse and end up taking part in the last great cavalry charge in history, at Beersheba in the Sinai Desert in 1917.

Light Horse Boy by Dianne Wolfer follows Jim, a young Australian who works as a farrier (someone who trims and shoes horses’ hooves) and his best mate Charlie, who also sail for Egypt, camp in the desert and visit the pyramids; they are sent to Gallipoli (without their horses) and later, back in Egypt, Jim takes part in the battles of the Desert Campaign.

James Bayne's World War One diary
While looking for photos of the Mounted Rifles, I came across this diary which is held by the Alexander Turnbull Library and part of the WW1 digitisation project. 

Bayne, James, d 1915 : World War One diary
Bayne, James, d 1915 : World War One diary. Ref: MS-Papers-1418. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23160459
Like many other WW1 soldiers, James Bayne kept a diary; his runs from 10 Aug 1914 to 8 May 1915, and describes many of the same events that Billy and Jack experience, although he served with the Wellington Infantry Battalion, not the Mounted Rifles. James enlisted at Dannevirke, was sent to Awapuni Camp for military training and embarked for Egypt in October 1914. He describes life on board ship and the stopover at Colombo (in modern day Sri Lanka), the arrival in Alexandria, more training at Zeitoun Camp and the "Battle of the Wozzer" in April 1915. After taking part in the first landings at Anzac Cove, he was sent to fight at Cape Helles in the south of the peninsula in May 1915, and that is where he died.

If you scroll down to and click on "See original record", then scroll down to and click on "View archived copy online", you can read every page of his diary, which is a strange and sombre experience - a bit like being in Gallipoli itself, where you often feel like you are trying to match up the past with the present

Thursday 3 July 2014

The snow goose by Paul Gallico, illustrated by Peter Scott

The snow goose by Paul Gallico, illustrated by Peter Scott (Michael Joseph, 1946)

10 chapters; 55 pages with colour and black and white illustrations

Subjects: World War Two, France, Dunkirk, birds, fable, boats, young adult fiction (Year 9-13)

I’m not sure if this counts as a children’s book, but it doesn’t really fall into any other category that I can think of, and some older children would definitely enjoy it. Apparently (according to Wikipedia), it was “first published in 1940 as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, then … expanded … to create a short novella which was first published on April 7, 1941.”

The book covers the decade from 1930 to 1940. It is set on an abandoned lighthouse on the remote Essex marches and tells the story of Philip Rhayader, a hunchbacked reclusive painter and Fritha, a young girl from the nearby fishing village. The two of them are linked in friendship and, later, unspoken love by the snow goose of the title, until Philip sails away to help in the evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in late May 1940. What happens to him can only be guessed by Fritha, but is told in snatches of overheard dialogue by by soldiers and naval officers.

When I went to borrow a copy from the library, I had to ask a librarian to retrieve it from the YA Fiction Nostalgia section out the back. (I didn’t even know there was such a section.) And the loveliest thing happened, which was when I gave her the title, she said. “I’m named after that book.” Her name was Fritha.

Fritha (in the library) told me about a 1970s BBC film of The snow goose, starring Richard Harris (aka Dumbledore in Harry Potter) and Jenny Agutter (from The railway children.) She said it’s hard to track down, but can be viewed on Youtube, and here it is (I'm going to watch it, and it looks wonderful.) 

The original 1940 copy of The Snow Goose, as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post is now available online.

If you’ve read this book, you will know it is a sad, melancholic, haunting tale. Some contemporary reviewers called the book sentimental, but it achieved near classic status almost at once and Michael Morpurgo cites it as an influence on his book War Horse.

Winter reads in The Guardian calls it a wartime classic, “a novella no thicker than a love letter, in which every sentence seems to shiver with the salt-laden chill of the desolate landscape in which it is set.” The reviewer made me think of my Fritha-in-the-library. She says, “My mother loved the story so much she wanted to call me Fritha, after the untamed Anglo-Saxon heroine. And growing up I would think of that other girl I might have been if only my resolutely unsentimental father had not intervened.”

The Guardian also put it on its list of 1000 Novels You Must Read

(1000 novels is a lot of reading! If you are feeling brave, here is a link to the compete list.)

Another review says it is "a moving story about love and courage, with an ending that is unforgettable."

About the author
Paul Gallico (1897 – 1976) was an American writer whose name is not often heard these days, but he used to be popular. His other well-known stories include The small miracle, about a little boy and his beloved donkey,  Thomasina (filmed by Walt Disney) and The Poseidon adventure, about a cruise ship sinking, which was also made into a movie.

About the illustrator
The Nostalgic library copy was the 1946 edition with illustrations by Peter Scott, which we had at home when I was growing up. Peter Scott (1909-1989) was the son of Antarctic explorer Sir Robert Falcon Scott, who died when he was only two years old. Famously, Scott left instructions for his wife that she should "Make the boy interested in natural history; it is better than games. Make him a strenuous man". 

Peter Scott became a naval officer in WW2, and was also a famous painter, ornithologist and conservationist, who founded the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge on the Severn River estuary in Gloucester. 

According to Wikipedia (again) he used his first wife Elizabeth Jane Howard as the model for Fritha – another fascinating sidebar, as I’m currently reading her wartime chronicles of the Cazalet family.  EJH was about 15 years younger than him, and had striking good looks; their marriage ended in divorce, and she later married Kingsley Amis; she died in January 2014, aged 90.

You can read more about Peter Scott's life here and here.  

I never knew this and it's fascinating:
According to a story in the Telegraph in 2010, a disused lighthouse at Sutton Bridge on the Norfolk Wash provided the inspiration for the setting of this book. Peter Scott rented it for £5 a year in the 1930s, and was visited every year by a pink-footed goose that he called Annabel. Gallico, who was a friend of his, transformed the timing (to wartime), the setting (to Essex) and the bird (to a snow goose.) The story is told in more detail on the website of Sutton Bridge village.   

Peter Scott in front of the East Lighthouse
Peter Scott in front of the East Bank Lighthouse 
If you visit the area, you can go on the Peter Scott walk, which follows the old sea bank along the Wash from King's Lynn, to the Peter Scott lighthouse at Sutton Bridge. 

Other books you might like
The dolphin crossing by Jill Paton Walsh tells the story of two school boys who take a small boat across the Channel to help in the evacuation of Dunkirk. 

The story of Dunkirk
The evacuation from Dunkirk took place over ten days from late May to early June 1940, and ten days later, German troops entered Paris. It's true that hundreds of small boats sailed across the Channel to help take men off the beaches. You can read more about Dunkirk here and listen to Voices from Dunkirk in the words of eight survivors here

You can also see some images of the evacuation on the Imperial War Museum site.