CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 2 . . . . September 17, 2004
Iain Lawrence has crafted an incomparable story of 20th century warfare in his gut-wrenching novel, B for Buster. It is a story of a young boy who, as a crewman in a Halifax Bomber, flew bombing missions into Nazi Germany during World War II. Flying bombing missions over Nazi Germany was one of the most dangerous jobs airmen could face. Every time the underpowered, heavily laden bombers lumbered off the English airstrips, the grim reaper sat next to each flyer. The bombers' targets in industrial Germany were hours away; the cities were well defended by anti-aircraft guns and determined German air force fighters. After completing the harrowing operation, the planes still faced danger from attack as they limped home low on fuel, often in horrible weather conditions and likely severely damaged. If an airman completed his 30 combat missions, he would be reassigned; however, the odds of survival were slim, at best. The hero of the novel is a 16-year from Northern Ontario, who had lied about his age to enlist. We are never told his real name - he's only the Kakabeka Kid or Kak for short. In fact, we never learn much about the identity of his crew members. They are just Lofty, Buzz, Pop, Ratty and Simon. Coming from somewhere in the United States, Australia, and Canada, they are brought together by fate to serve the needs of a faceless war. The flying crew had just completed its Halifax Bomber training and has been posted to a remote airstrip in Yorkshire, England. They are excited and ready to join in the battle against Nazi Germany and are assigned the bomber designated B for Buster. Kak is a romantic young man enamored with flying and the idea of being a hero like Captain Marvel or the Green Lantern. However, he soon learns that there is no comic book heroism in the belly of a Halifax Bomber. On their first operation, the plane is rocked by anti-aircraft fire, and he sees other planes in the squadron "getting the chop." The more operations he flies, the more men he sees die and the greater his terror becomes. However, although almost paralyzed by fear, he continues to fly. He remains loyal to his crewmates and is more terrified of being branded a coward than of dying.
Kak avoids his crewmates and shuns the carousing young men often do in the pubs and in the sergeants' mess. His only friend is Bert, a fine and distinctive character that one would expect to find in a Dickens' novel. He is a strange, smelly man who looks after the homing pigeons that fly on the bombers during the missions. Soon Kak is spending more time in the pigeon loft learning the ways of the birds. Bert has his own secrets and understands the fear young Kak feels. Consequently, he and his pigeons are able to help Kak through the dark hours. As his missions continue, Kak begins to understand a simple fact: the war is simply a vast impersonal killing machine. He sees his acquaintances die; he sees children die in the bombing of London; he sees the fire-storms the Allied bombing raids unleash on German civilian populations. There is nothing he can do except hope to live through the terror of the operations and the nightmares that will plague his sleep until his death.
B For Buster is a rare and exceptional novel of Canadians at war. Few other young adult novels have been as successful at capturing what it was like to be young, alone and afraid in a faraway place.
Ian Stewart teaches at David Livingstone School in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.