CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 13 . . . .March 3, 2006
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.
Gregory Bryan is a member of the Department of Curriculum Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.
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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.