Wednesday 25 November 2015

The machine gunners by Robert Westall

The machine gunners by Robert Westall (Macmillan, 1975)

18 chapters; 189 pages

Subjects: World War Two, England, bombing raids, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

The machine gunners is set in north-eastern England in 1940-41. We often read about the bombing on London - the Blitz and the deadly V2s later in the war – but forget how other parts of England were affected. Tyneside (around Newcastle, or the fictional Garmouth in this story) is surprisingly close to Germany on the map, and it was the focus of many bombing raids at this time, often as devastating as the ones that were targeting London.

Chas is one of the local kids who hang around bomb sites, foraging for items (machine gun bullets, pieces of shrapnel, tail fins, nose cones) to add to their collections of war souvenirs. Their parents, worn out by sleepless nights, food shortages and warden duties, don’t care too much what they are up to, as long as they are safe in the Anderson shelters when the alarm goes.

Then Chas finds a crashed German plane in the woods, with a dead German gunner slumped inside, and the machinegun turret still attached. He calls in a gang of others to help – Cem (short for Cemetery Jones), Clogger, Audrey and Nicky - and they end up with not only the machine gun, but also an elaborate underground bomb shelter in the grounds of a ruined house and Rudi, a captured German airman. Meanwhile, the local Home Guard officer is aware that the machine gun is missing, suspects that local kids are involved and is desperately trying to retrieve it before disaster strikes.

The author comments that the plot was inspired by a newspaper article about a gang of Dutch children who found a wrecked Allied bomber long after the war, in 1969. They managed to “remove its rear gun turret, transport it several miles to their den, clean and repair it and were about to fire it when the Dutch police finally caught up with them”.  He adds that one night in 1941, some people on Tyneside really believed the German invasion had begun.

Some of the dialogue is written in dialect, especially Clogger’s (from Glasgow), which isn’t always easy to follow. But it is could work well as a book for a teacher to read out to a class. The idea of children working together, with little parental supervision, and finding warmth and acceptance in their gang, provides a very different slant on war. 

It has been a popular book over the years, especially in English schools, and there are lots of different covers. 

A musical adaptation was first staged in 1998, and later appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 

FreelanceProduction: The Machine Gunners
About the author
Robert Westall, according to the blurb on the back flap, “was a schoolboy in Tyneside during the war years” (later he went into the army and then became a teacher) which must be why the passages about the bombing raids and their aftermath – like when Chas and his dad make their way across town to try and find out if his grandparents are still alive - seem so authentic.

Other books you might like
Ronnie’s war by Bernard Ashley (the scene where Ronnie goes to look for his mother is another dramatic description of the aftermath of an air raid).

Things I didn’t know
I didn’t know that school started late if the raids had gone on late the previous night (in the opening chapter, Chas wakes in the air raid shelter after a raid that went on past midnight, so school doesn’t start until 10.30am). I didn’t know how important it was to have your insurance policies with you when you ran for the shelter in your back year, in case your house was destroyed. And I didn’t realise that wardens were unpaid and had to do their warden duties at night on top of a job during the day.

NZ connections
The final chapters – with the arrival of the Polish Free Army 
and non-arrival of the Germans – have semi-comic moments but pose a real question about what you would do and how your family might react to a possible invasion. In WW2, many people in Australia and New Zealand feared that a Japanese invasion was imminent, and I’ve heard stories from people about how their families had planned to retreat to farms in the countryside if that happened. 

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Monday 9 November 2015

The singing tree by Kate Seredy

The singing tree written and illustrated by Kate Seredy (George G Harrap & Co, first published 1940)

11 chapters; 216 pages with full page and chapter heading black-and-white illustrations

Subjects: World War One, Hungary, Jews, Christmas, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

I had to request this book from the library's Central Stack section (in other words: “old books not borrowed much any more”). I read it as a child, and the title has stuck in my head, but I didn’t recall exactly what it was about, apart from a vague idea that it was set in Eastern Europe.  

In fact it is set in a small rural village on the Hungarian plains, where 12-year-old Kate lives with her 13-year-old cousin Jancsi on his father’s farm. The opening chapter shows Kate and Jancsi entering the village store, kept by Uncle Moses, so Kate can buy some red satin ribbons for her hat. The children are puzzled and intrigued by Uncle Mo’s method of book-keeping, which relies on his good memory and knowledge of the local people, and involves complicated deals and shrewd bargaining. It’s interesting to think about how this would have read on the book’s first publication in 1940, when the Jews in Europe were already under threat.

The villagers’ way of life is embedded in tradition, hinted at by the costumes in the illustrations. The main street, lined with “freshly whitewashed houses and blooming geraniums in the blue and green windowboxes”, echoes to the cheerful and peaceful sound of “the laughter of playing children, mixed with the cackling of hens, the honk-honk of waddling geese, the yips and barks of dogs”. Wedding celebrations involve the whole village, and run according to a carefully scripted programme, from the calling of the guests at first light to the ceremonies of the Seeking and the Lead Me Home at the end of the night of feasting and dancing; there are herds of horses on the plains and sheep and lambs – “hundreds and thousands of them… like a big white cloud rolling over the meadows.” 

But there are rumours, mutterings and threats like tiny puffs of cloud in a blue sky, and once the storm of WW1 breaks, this calm and peace is threatened forever.

The first real warning sign washes over Kate’s sleepy head as she dozes on the way home from the wedding in the horse-drawn wagon. At a brief stop in front of Uncle Moses’ house, his son Aaron says something that makes her father exclaim in alarm: “Francis Ferdinand had been shot this afternoon – somewhere in Bosnia”.  The adults begin to speak strange and sinister words, “words with a vaguely ugly meaning. ‘Assassination… rights of minorities… ultimatum to Serbia... mobilization.’” Soon not only Hungary but all Europe is at war. (This is at pg 99, so almost halfway through the story.)

This book also led me to an interesting review website: kidlithistory ("Everything I need to know about history, I learned through children's literature".) 

Where is Hungary? Look it up on a map (and look for a map of Hungary in 1914 as well).

About the author: 
I couldn't find much biographical info about Kate Seredy, but according to LibraryThing, she was born in Budapest in 1896 and served as a nurse in WW1. She emigrated to the USA in 1922, learned English, ran a children's bookstore and worked as a commercial illustrator and painter. Although she wrote several (award-winning) books, she always thought of herself as an illustrator, not a writer. She died in 1975. 

Other books you might like:
The endless steppe by Esther Hauzig
A winter's day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik is set in Poland and Russia. 
I am David by Anne Holm also begins in an unnamed concentration camp that seems to be in eastern Europe. 

Things I didn’t know
Anything about life in Hungary before WW1. (We talk about the Austro-Hungarian Empire during WW1, but I’d never thought much about the Hungarian side of it.)

The singing tree is a sequel to Kate Seredy's earlier book, The good master

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!