Friday 30 June 2017

War girls: a collection of First World War stories through the eyes of young women

War girls: a collection of First World War stories through the eyes of young women (Andersen Press, 2014)
Nine stories by Theresa Breslin, Melvin Burgess, Berlie Doherty, Anne Fine, Adele Geras, Mary Hooper, Rowena House, Sally Nicholls and Matt Whyman.
259 pages
Subjects: World War One, women in war, short stories, junior fiction (Years 6-10)

The back blurb says that “this collection of short stories explores how the First World War changed and shaped the lives of women for ever… Some of today’s leading writers for young people present moving portraits of loss and grief, and of hope overcoming terrible odds.” (There isn’t any other information inside about how the authors were chosen, and what inspired them in turn to choose their topic.)

Everyone will have their own favourites, but these are the stories:

Shadow and light by Theresa Breslin
Merle, an aspiring artist, and her friend Grace join the British Red Cross to drive ambulances for the Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service – staffed entirely (doctors, nurses, cooks and ambulance drivers) by women. She has some spiky run-ins with a golden-haired English captain who doesn’t realise she can understand his comments in French about women in war. Together they get caught up in the middle of the German advance near Albert.

Ghost story by Matt Whyman
Some Allied soldiers said they came under fire from female Turkish snipers at Gallipoli – could that be true?

Storm in a teacup by Mary Hooper
16 year old Harriet isn’t old enough to be a nurse and doesn’t want to work in a factory, so she gets a job as a waitress at the Lyons’ Corner House on the Strand in London and stumbles across a spy ring. This seemed a little far-fetched, but I liked the setting because my mother lived in London as a young woman and always had a soft spot for Lyons’ Corner Houses.

The marshalling of Angelique’s geese by Rowena House
Angelique is 14 and lives in a French village; her father has just been killed and her brother is away at the war as well.  She goes on a long and adventurous journey (with the geese!) trying to raise money to pay off her father’s debts. Her journey is also linked to the spread of Spanish flu – or one theory about its possible origins.

Mother and Mrs Everington by Melvin Burgess
Effie’s brother Robbie signs up underage and comes back with shellshock. She learns to drive and forges a letter so she can get to France as a nurse and driver, thinking he is just a weakling, but then finds out for herself - in an unexpected way - how terrible it is to be caught under shellfire.

Sky dancer by Berlie Doherty
Kate’s young man Fred joins the Royal Flying Corps and goes to France. Obviously that’s not going to end well (and it doesn’t). Kate wants to follow him - “just to breathe the air that Fred breathed” - and, despite her shyness, signs up for a concert party to entertain the troops. I found this to be an unusual, sad and memorable story.

Piercing the veil by Anne Fine
During the war, there was increased interest in spiritualism as people (especially mothers) tried to get in contact with the dead - but Alice’s father is a minister and doesn’t believe in such things.  

The green behind the glass by Adele Geras
Sarah and her sister, a fiancé and a forbidden love and a ghostly warning.

Going spare by Sally Nicholls
Set in 1977; the 14 year old narrator finds out from Miss Frobisher upstairs about what life was like (quite exciting, in her case) for the "leftover women" who never married after WW1.

The review in the Guardian says: “War Girls is like no other WW1 fiction I have read before. It does not focus on the trenches, the tragic battle of the Somme nor the brave men who fought. The book combines a mixture of exceptionally written, heart-wrenching short stories into a book about the lives of the women left behind.”
The Bookbag says it is an “utterly engrossing” anthology with “not a weak story among them”.  
About the authors
Author biographies at the end tell you a bit about each author.
Some interesting backstory here by Theresa Breslin about the writing of her contribution.
Other books you might like:
Other books by Theresa Breslin that I have reviewed on this blog are Ghost soldier and Remembrance. Another  good short story collection is The Great War: stories inspired by objects from the First World War, which also has a piece by Adele Geras. 
New Zealand connections:
The NZ soldiers get mentioned among the others at the training camp at Etaples that Angelique is travelling to - that's the only reference I spotted! 
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Saturday 10 June 2017

Dreaming the enemy by David Metzenthen

Dreaming the enemy by David Metzenthen (Allen & Unwin, 2016)
47 chapters; 292 pages
Subjects: Vietnam, Australia, conscription, veterans, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), young adult fiction (Year 11-13)

Johnny Shoebridge has come home from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. It’s hard to readjust to ordinary life with his parents and the girl he used to know. He is haunted by memories of all the things he has seen; literally haunted, by a Viet-Cong ghost fighter called Khan who won’t leave him alone.

He is still young and can't understand how he has ended up in this position: “How had he gone from a kid swinging a stick as a Samurai sword, the star of a flickering home movie, to a nineteen-year-old digger on ambush, prepared to shoot someone in the side of the head?” He has lost good mates in battle and is trying to summon up the courage to go and visit their families. (These eventual encounters make for heart-wrenching scenes.) Even though he was a conscript with no choice about going, he’s assailed by anti-Vietnam war protesters, with people coming up to say “I just hope you’re happy… with what you did.”

“There was an awful lot of stuff that he wished he didn’t know.”

The story jumps back and forth in time and place. In the present, Johnny is back home again, heading off on a road trip. In the past, he is getting to know his new mates Baz and Lex; they start training together, go out on patrol, and fight side by side in battle. Another parallel story is that of Khan, Trung and Thang as they hide in the jungle, crawl through tunnels and fight on the other side.

I found the parts where Johnny somehow knows or imagines what Khan is doing a bit confusing, perhaps because of the distance imposed by having Johnny comment on what he sees. What worked best for me were the scenes between Johnny and his mates, and their convincing teenage-boy speech as they get to know and rely on each other. Johnny “knew himself to be one corner of a triangle, the strongest shape of all. He knew Lex and he knew Barry like he knew no one else on the planet.”

Of course you know that’s not going to end well. They’re going to get caught up in some terrible fighting and you suspect that at least one of them won’t make it home again.  

Booksellers NZ calls it “a poignant novel, posing meaningful questions about the effects of war”. It acknowledges “some might suggest the book is difficult to keep up with as it flicks from past to present to imagination “, but suggests that “this is in keeping with Johnny’s head and the confusion that follows him”.
A very good review in The Australian too: this final paragraph is worth quoting in full:
"Senior secondary students, especially boys, (and their teachers) might be grateful if Dreaming the Enemy were set for study. It is a sophisticated work — substantial, powerful, highly readable and with key characters close to their age. It touches on many issues: the aftermath of war, including how returned fighters were and are treated; the effects on mental and physical health and on families and relationships. It looks at conscription, the politics of wars, the destruction caused by the bombing and napalm, the attitudes of Americans, the contribution of Australians, and much else. The story is infused with humanity and embellished by Metzenthen’s flair for language and flashes of dry Aussie humour."
And on Reading time, David Metzenthen has some very wise words about the book:
"I wanted strongly to present something of what young Australians went through in this war, at the orders of their Government, and the great toll it took on them, their families, friends, and futures. In Dreaming The Enemy, I hope to have shown what happens to people, that what we do or is done to us, stays with us for a long time and must be met with compassion and understanding."
About the author
David Metzenthen lives in Melbourne. He is a keen environmentalist and was an advertising copywriter and a builder’s labourer before turning to fiction. He has written another war-related YA novel, Boys of blood and bone, as well as the thought-provoking picture book One minute’s silence.
Other books you might like:
There aren't nearly as many books about Vietnam as about World Wars One and Two. One book that I have reviewed is The battle of Messines Road.
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Friday 2 June 2017

From Billabong to London by Mary Grant Bruce

From Billabong to London by Mary Grant Bruce (London: Ward Lock, 1915)

About 320 pages with a few full page illustrations

Subjects: World War One, Australia, England, London, ships, family, junior fiction (Year 8-10)

I had to borrow this book from the Dorothy Neal White collection at the National Library, and it’s the earliest book that I’ve yet reviewed. It’s number 4 of the 15 books that make up the Billabong series; others include Jim and Wally and Captain Jim (1916 & 1919).

Billabong is the house and the station, 2 miles from the nearest road and 17 miles from the nearest town. No other home is visible, “only peaceful paddocks”. The main characters are gradually introduced, but readers of the series would already know them: David Linton, the widowed station owner, and his children Jim (19) and Norah (nearly 15); their friend Wally (17); Mrs Brown, the housekeeper; the station hands, and Black Billy, the “native boy”.

The first quarter of the book is taken up with station life: a tame wallaby, snakes, a bullock stuck in a swamp, breaking in a new colt, as shown on the cover. But two topics overshadow everyone’s thoughts: the drought, and the war in Europe. Many of the local young men have already signed up. Wally (who is still underage) and Jim are desperate to go as well. A fortuitous inheritance calls Mr Linton “Home” to deal with the paperwork in England, and the decision is made that they will all go – Jim and Wally, so they can sign up there, and Norah so she’s not left on her own.

By pg. 91, they are on board the Perseus in some degree of comfort, about to leave from Port Melbourne. Their 6-week journey takes them via Adelaide and across the Indian Ocean to Durban, Cape Town, then Las Palmas to arrive in Falmouth, Cornwall, from where they take a train to London. Ordinary shipboard pursuits such as deck quoits, boat drill, whale and porpoise spotting and listening to the Captain’s gramophone life are enlivened by the capture of a German spy (not really a spoiler as it’s so heavily foreshadowed), an alarming passage through the fog and their own capture by a German warship. Not surprisingly, they are rescued in time and make it to England safely.

This is a well-written story with lively dialogue and warm family relationships, but reading it 100 years after publication, it’s hard to overlook the book’s treatment of Aboriginal and black South African characters. The Zulus are viewed either as picturesque rickshaw-pullers, or as dangerous robbers. The Aboriginal people are dismissed as “useless, shifty, lazy” and “thieving”. Black Billy is ridiculed for his use of English, rather than admired for having learnt another language, and there is no acknowledgment of the original inhabitants of the land. The writing is of course a product of its time, but the attitudes jar today.

Here you can read a contemporary review from the Port Fairy Gazette of 15 October 1915, which compares Norah’s stories to that of Little Women in their widespread appeal.

About the author
Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958) worked as a journalist after leaving school and started the Billabong stories as a newspaper serial; she became a best-selling and much loved Australian children’s author. In WW2 she wrote patriotic talks and sold her autographs at charity auctions for the war effort.

Here's my favourite part of her bio from the official website: “Mary began writing when she was six and, from age 16, she entered and won the annual examinations of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society three times in a row whilst still a schoolgirl.”

You can read more about her here in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, which says that she was known as Minnie but "Mary" was thought to be a "more marketable" name. It also points out that "Australians, and not only children, looking at Billabong, could see themselves as they wanted to be - mates in fortune and adversity, sturdy, decent and fearless inheritors of a tough, but rewarding land."

About the illustrator
The Port Fairy Gazette review above credits them to Fred Leist, “an Australian artist now in London”.

Other books you might like:
The Belgian twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins (1917) and Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (1921) are two other books written during or just after WW1.

New Zealand connections:
Does NZ get a mention? Possibly not - anyway, I didn't spot any!

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