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)

Synopsis
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.  

Reviews:
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)


Synopsis
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.

Reviews:
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!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The butter battle book by Dr Seuss

The butter battle book by Dr Seuss (Random House, 1984)

48 pages with typical Dr Seuss style illustrations!

Subjects: anti-war books, fable, picture books (Year 3-8)


Synopsis
Written in Dr Seuss’ usual zany rhyming style, this book tells the story of two neighbouring communities – Yooks and Zooks – who are divided by their differing opinions on the best way to butter their bread. Things get more heated, and following an initial exchange with a slingshot, the Boys in the Back Room dream up bigger, crazily-named and ever more powerful weapons.

But it’s also a metaphorical look at The Cold War (after all, it’s surely no coincidence that “Yooks” and “Zooks” sound like “Nukes”, and that they are divided by a Wall.) As I got closer to the end, I wondered how it was going to finish and whether the escalating situation could be resolved – but it ends on top of the wall in a situation of total uncertainty.

You can read the whole text online here
Or you can watch it on YouTube

Reviews:
The Teach Peace Foundation calls it an “anti-war…children’s rhyming story addressing fears from the cold war era during which it was written. Specifically it deals with the nuclear war and the possibility of mutually assured destruction”. The website has some suggested teaching notes. 

Questions:
Does it matter which way up your butter your bread?
What are some equivalent differences between people in today’s world? (Which way do you...?) 
The Teaching Children Philosophy site also poses lots of good questions arising from this story.

About the author
Everyone knows Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) in other words, Dr Seuss! 
Some things I didn’t know about him –
  • His first book, And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times before being published by Vanguard Press
  • Seuss was his middle name and his mother’s maiden name
  • And my favourite fact: his mother used to soothe her children to sleep by chanting rhymes, which is where Dr Seuss thought he got his ability to rhyme from.


Find out more about him here
And see more of his art here

Other things I didn’t know
According to the Teach Peace Foundation, this book “was censored and taken out of public libraries for its obvious statements against the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Other books you might like:
Other anti-war picture books include The story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, The general by Janet Charters, illustrated by Michael Foreman, and Bravo! by Philip Waechter and Moni Port.

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

Sunday, 2 April 2017

A day to remember: the story of Anzac Day by Jackie French, illustrated by Mark Wilson

A day to remember: the story of Anzac Day by Jackie French, illustrated by Mark Wilson (Angus & Robertson, 2012)

32 pages with Mark Wilson’s colour and black and white illustrations

Subjects: World War One, Gallipoli, World War Two, Korean War, Vietnam War, protest movement, Anzac Day, picture books, non fiction (Year 5-8)



Synopsis
This book tells the story of Anzac Day by tying the date of 25 April to specific events in particular years, starting with the first landings at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. The first Anzac Day parades and services are held in 1916; in 1918, the war still continues, but it is over by 25 April 1919. In the late 1920s, the tradition of the dawn service begins; in the 1930s, many returned soldiers are suffering through the Depression. Anzac Day continues to be marked through World War Two, the Korean War and the protest years of the Vietnam War.

The book continues up to the present day through Australian involvement (again often controversial) in other wars, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, and traces the increased interest in visiting Gallipoli for the dawn service at Anzac Cove.

Teacher’s notes include Jackie French talking about her inspiration for the book, and Mark Wilson talking about his technique and how he interpreted his task. The figures on the cover are his son and granddaughter – how lovely is that?

Reviews:
Kids Book Review recommends it highly, saying that "You know a book by Jackie French is going to be researched to the nth degree, and presented with clarity, emotion and fascination - and A Day to Remember is no exception."

The never-ending bookshelf says is it is a picture book that adults would enjoy and learn from as well; "What I found particularly interesting with this book was the way that Jackie French focused on the concept and meaning of Anzac day through various generations and the way that it was developed, shaped and then lessened in meaning before reaching height again today." This reviewer suggests it is not for young children under 8, "as it is very heavy on the history and less narrative based". 


Author’s website
Jackie French is an amazing writer with a brilliant website which features a page on this book. Her other war-related books include The beach they Called Gallipoli, Pennies for Hitler and A rose for the Anzac boys.

Illustrator’s website

NZ connections:
Are we mentioned? Yes, often (thanks, Jackie French!) Sometimes the New Zealanders are left out of (Australian) books on Anzac, so it’s good to see their contribution recognised.

I also appreciated seeing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers acknowledged, men who “fought long ago in the service of a land where many were not even allowed to vote”.

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