________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 13 . . . .March 3, 2006


Lord of the Nutcracker Men.

Iain Lawrence.
New York, NY: Dell Laurel-Leaf (Distributed in Canada by Random House Canada), 2001.
212 pp., pbk. & cl., $8.99 (pbk.), $23.95 (cl.), $26.99 (GLB).
ISBN 0-440-41812-7 (pbk.), ISBN 0-385-72924-3 (cl.), ISBN 0-385-90024-4 (GLB).

Subject Headings:
World War, 1914-1918—Juvenile fiction.
War—Juvenile fiction.
Fathers and sons—Juvenile fiction.
Toymakers—Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Gregory Bryan.

***½ /4



The bell rang again, a little louder and closer. I thought of the postman pedaling along, carrying his message from cold Mr. Death.

I stood up. No one lived farther from Cliffe than Auntie Ivy. There was only empty road to the south, all the way to the railway station. The bell jangled.

“Go past,” I said to myself. “Oh, please, make him go past. Don’t let him stop here.”

But he did. The postman shouted out, “Hello!” and the bell jangled again. “Ivy! Hello.”

I got up from the mud, staggered and fell. My barbed wire snagged on my boot, and I kicked it off. I stomped over the battlefield, over the trenches; I ran from the garden, around to the front as Auntie Ivy came thumping down the steps.

In the middle of the road stood the old postman, holding his bicycle at a slant. In his hand was a sheet of paper the color of biscuits.

“Go away!” shrieked Auntie Ivy. She raced through the gate and battered against the postman. His bicycle crashed to the ground. “Keep going,” she screamed. “Go on!”

He caught her in his arms, the paper crumpling. “It’s news,” he said. “It’s great news.”

Auntie Ivy held on to his shoulder. She was crying.

“I’m telling everyone,” said the postman. “I’m making the rounds, and now I’m going to have the church bells rung.”

“For mercy’s sake, why?” asked Auntie Ivy.

“A victory!” The old postman danced her in a jig. “There’s been a great victory in France.”

I felt almost a shock. “Is it over?” I asked.

“No. Lord, no,” said the postman. “But we pushed the Germans back. All along the line.” He picked up his bicycle and rang the bell. Then he leaned across it and kissed my auntie on the cheek.

“Gracious,” she said.

“Must be off.” He swung his leg over the bar and went weaving down the road, giving his bell one last jingle.

Auntie Ivy looked at me. “You’re white as a sheet,” she said. “It’s all right, Johnny. It was only news.”

My knees were trembling. “Auntie,” I said, “I think I might have done it.”

“Done what?” she asked.

“The victory,” I told her. “I had a battle with my soldiers. I pushed the Germans back, and now it’s really happened. I think it’s—”

“What rubbish!” she said.

“But, Auntie,” I said. “It happened before. When Dad went over the top my soldier did too.”

“This is nonsense,” she said. “This is utter nonsense.”

She started off toward the house, and I grabbed her purple dress. “Just listen,” I said.

“I don’t listen to rubbish.” She knocked my hand away and kept on going.

“Auntie!” I cried.

“Those are wooden soldiers you’ve got in the garden,” she said. “Just little wooden soldiers.”


Given our war torn modern world, one marvels at the naivete of our forefathers for believing that their war would be The War To End All Wars. Iain Lawrence’s First World War novel, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, is about a 10-year-old boy’s rude awakening from such beautifully naïve innocence.

     Lord of the Nutcracker Men was first published in 2001, but because of a lengthy delay in the publisher supplying a review copy, it is only now that CM is able to furnish a review. Suffice it to say, however, the book was worth the wait.

     The story is told in first person from the viewpoint of 10-year-old, Johnny. Young Johnny is an English boy whose father marches off to France in the early days of the First World War. A toy maker by trade, Johnny’s father proceeds to send Johnny wooden soldiers that have been whittled during quiet moments of inactivity at the Front. These Allied wooden soldiers become the troops that Johnny sets against the army of wooden Nutcracker Men that Johnny had previously received for his ninth birthday. While at a picture show during the early days of the war, Johnny sees some newsreel footage of the German military force. He marvels at how the disciplined, fine-tuned army of the Kaiser reminds him of his Nutcracker Men.

     With London constantly under threat of bombings, Johnny’s mother sends him to live with his auntie in the relative safety of the Kent countryside. Inspired by the reports from the Front that Johnny receives from his father, Johnny begins to wage the war with his toy soldiers in Auntie Ivy’s backyard garden.

     In a book heavy with analogous symbolism, Johnny receives extra tutoring from his new schoolteacher, the widower Mr. Tuttle. On Wednesday evenings and Saturdays, Mr. Tuttle begins to teach Johnny the Classics, starting with Homer’s The Iliad. They discuss the role that the Gods play instigating and influencing the great Trojan War. At this same time, Johnny begins to notice the similarity between the events that he enacts with his wooden soldiers and the events that his father reports from the Front shortly thereafter. Much to Johnny’s dismay, he concludes that, like the Gods, he has the power to determine who should live and who should die. His playfriend, Sarah, curses Johnny when Sarah’s father is killed in France shortly after the wooden soldier that represents Sarah’s father is knocked down in the garden.

     There are several vehicles through which Johnny is forced to replace his naïvely glorious perception of battle with a more realistic understanding of the horror of war. Johnny learns about war through the letters from his father, the ramblings of a shell-shocked Highlander, Sarah’s lieutenant father while home on leave, and a wounded deserter.

     Being well familiar with World War One history, it is apparent to me that Lawrence has carefully researched his book. He notes that his paternal grandfather and three maternal great uncles all fought in the Great War, so it is evident that Lawrence has been shaped by the events of the War of 1914-1918. These things being the case, Lord of the Nutcracker Men provides an opportunity for young readers to be introduced to the futility of trench warfare, the blessed Christmas Truce of December 1914, and the miraculous vision of the Angel of Mons. In addition, and above all, readers will enjoy a thoroughly well told story.

     The book includes a Readers Circle reading group discussion guide. This guide includes a long list of questions for discussion. The questions will serve as a useful starting point for classroom literature circle or whole group discussions. Of even greater interest to me is the seven-page printed conversation with the author, Iain Lawrence. The interview provides interesting insights into Lawrence’s general approach to writing. He also discusses the various elements that combined to inspire and direct the approach he took in writing Lord of the Nutcracker Men.

     As I read, my only cause for hesitation lay in the rapidity with which letters from the Front reached young Johnny. Apparently sensing that this may cause angst among his readers, in the author’s note at the conclusion of the story, Lawrence addresses this very point. He states, “The letters from Johnny’s father may seem to come with unlikely regularity and impossible speed, but the truth is that they don’t. Mail from the front was delivered in England within two or three days” (p. 209-210). Nice job, Mr. Lawrence, and thank you for your attention to detail. Lord of the Nutcracker Men is a job well done.

Highly Recommended.

Gregory Bryan is a member of the Department of Curriculum Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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