CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 31. . . .April 15, 2011.
Shot at Dawn: World War I. (I Am Canada).
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2011.
201 pp., hardcover, $14.99.
Canada, Canadian Army-History-World War, 1914-1918-Juvenile fiction.
World War, 1914-1918-Desertions-Canada-Juvenile fiction.
Courts martial and courts of inquiry-Canada-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.
Review by Rob Bittner.
Laden like mules and in the face of an incessant, bitter wind off the English Channel, we marched back and forth across the packed sand of the parade ground at Etaples until our feet bled, our muscles seized up and our brains ceased to function in a red haze of exhaustion and pain. Endlessly, we stabbed our bayonets into the guts of hanging straw-filled bags, wrestled each other in hand-to-hand combat and lay terrified in suffocating gas masks while swirling poison filled the air around us. What little time we had to ourselves was spent in wolfing down our rations before collapsing onto our cots for a few hours of oblivion.
The words above were spoken by Allan McBride on the evening before he is scheduled for execution. In this beautifully crafted and strongly written book, John Wilson tells the story of a young man seduced by the idea of fighting for his country in World War I, but who ends up becoming disillusioned as his friends disappear, his commanding officers are ruthlessly killed, and his own life becomes more precious with every gas attack and shell blast. Wilson’s novel is one that will bring tears to some, feelings of relief to others, and a realization of Canada’s contributions to WWI to every reader.
Wilson’s characters are meticulously constructed and brought to life on every page. Allan, the protagonist of the story, is an extraordinarily sympathetic character, revealing both the fantasy of war dreamed by young men at the beginning of the war, and disillusionment as he confronts the realities of his situation. Ken, Allan’s childhood friend and later his commanding officer, suffers from guilt for allowing Allan to get involved in the war, and he ends up fighting his own demons one night during an operation to kidnap a German soldier. And then there is Bob, Allan’s friend through a number of battles. Bob is there for moral support and to bring humor to the soldiers as they confront their mortality on a daily basis.
Wilson’s prose is gripping and poetic, catching the attention of his audience from the start. This historical fiction novel is an “I Am Canada” book, a series published by Scholastic to bring attention to Canada’s past and its contributions to our contemporary world. Shot at Dawn covers a lot of ground, which means that it is fast-paced, but also that it does not cover each battle with pages of detail. These very attributes make the book a great match for readers in Junior High and High School. The content, though, may be too graphic for some readers, with death scenes and war-related violence showing up numerous times throughout.
As Allan loses his friends and companions and ends up being tried as a deserter, he is forced to explore issues of loyalty to his Country, resulting in death, or life as a rogue, resulting in a life of guilt. The exploration of these topics is thorough but not didactic or preachy, bringing across important and relevant questions for a contemporary audience. Wilson shares the real-life inspirations for his book in a detailed “Historical Note” which also highlights and explains individual battles throughout WWI in which Canada took part. There are also maps, photos, and documents in black and white at the back of the book.
Rob Bittner is a graduate student of Children’s and Young Adult Literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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