________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 39. . . .June 11, 2010


Bitter Ashes: The Story of WWII. (Stories of Canada).

John Wilson.
Toronto, Napoleon, 2009.
96 pp., hardcover, $20.95.
ISBN 978-1-894917-90-2.

Subject Headings:
World War, 1939-1945-Juvenile literature.
Canada-History-1939-1945-Juvenile literature.
World War, 1939-1945-Canada-Pictorial works-Juvenile literature.

Grades 6-8 / Age 11-13.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

*** /4



In WW II, radio made communication over great distances much easier and more secure than it had been in any previous war. There were no wires to be cut by partisans or shellfire, and it was possible to communicate with ships and submarines at sea almost instantly. The downside was that anyone else with a receiver could listen in, hence the need for complex codes so that no one but the receiver could understand what was being sent.


Bitter Ashes is a follow up to Wilson's account of the First World War told in Desperate Glory. As with the earlier volume, Wilson tells the story of the Second World War in a series of brief, topical chapters that are one to two pages in length. The topics are arranged more or less in chronological sequence, so various battles or campaigns such as Barbarossa, Pearl Harbor or D-Day are appropriately situated and interspersed with other interesting topics such as Spies, Crisis in Canada (dealing with conscription), Holocaust, and even A Poetic War?

      Every page includes one or more appropriate visuals in the form of historic photographs, portraits, or maps. Wilson includes sidebars that expand upon interesting topics on the page. For example, in a chapter on Resistance, a sidebar elaborates upon Sophie Scholl and the student resistance movement the White Rose and the inspiration their story has had upon later generations.

      The topical approach to the subject matter gives the volume the feel of a reference book that can be dipped into for tidbits of information on a specific aspect of the war, yet the index is not quite up for this task. For example, the book begins with Guernica and the Spanish Civil War that served as a dress rehearsal for Germany's military activity during World War II, but the index has no entry for Spain or Spanish Civil War. There is a single entry for Guernica (Spain). The absence of a table of contents also detracts from the usability of the volume as a reference type work.

      Wilson tries to present some balance in that he acknowledges that war crimes are committed by all sides in war and mentions a couple of charges against the Allies. Overall, his approach is traditional in lifting up the Allies and their conduct in the war. In an effort to oversimplify, he makes some inaccurate statements such as: "Fascism was destroyed in WW II, and Communism, outside China, collapsed in the 1990s." What about Franco's fascist Spain, and North Korea's brand of communism? It is simplistic to dismiss the Eastern Bloc as "puppet states" of Russia. Even the use of the name Russia diminishes that nation's historic era as the Soviet Union.

      It is a daunting task to try to present a complete story of WW II in such a limited amount of space and using language appropriate for the intended readers. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder how much more engaging Bitter Ashes would be if Wilson had spun a more integrated narrative in a manner similar to that mastered by Pierre Berton.

      Some other features that must be celebrated are a detailed Timeline, a selected bibliography listing twenty-three books consulted by the author, and a carefully considered list of eight web sites, including three from Canada.

Recommended with reservations.

Val Ken Lem is the Collections Evaluation and Donations Librarian and subject liaison for History, English and Caribbean Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

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

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