________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 36. . . .May 17, 2013


Kid Soldier.

Jennifer Maruno.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2013.
198 pp., trade pbk., Epub, PDF, $12.98 (pbk.), $8.99 (Epub), $12.99 (PDF).
ISBN 978-1-45970-677-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-45970-679-8 (Epub), ISBN 978-1-45970-678-1(PDF).

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Reviewed by Ruth Latta.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



"And he's made it all the way to sergeant?" the officer asked, with a drop of his jaw.

"I didn't say he was dumb," William said. "I said he was young."

The officer turned to Richard. "What identification did you use when you signed up?"

"My library card," Richard said.

The officer blinked in astonishment. "You won't be old enough until next month."

"Then I'll do new paperwork," Richard said with a shrug.

"You know, you could be court-martialled for this," the officer said, narrowing his eyes.

Aunt Joyce's hands leaped to her face.

"That's okay," Richard said. He stared directly into the officer's eyes. "I've made the papers once already." He passed his spread fingers in front of his face. "I can see the headlines now, 'Kid Soldier Kicked Back to Canada in Cuffs.' My buddies will love it."

The officer grabbed the clipboard from Richard's bed rail. He signed it with an angry flourish, tossed it on the bed, and marched out of the room.


My first thought, seeing the title Kid Soldier, was that this was a story about child soldiers set in the recent past, perhaps in Africa. A few pages in, however, I became aware of the place and time. Jennifer Maruno, author of three other young people's books, has based this latest work on her father's World War II diary. Richard Charles Fuller, who joined the Canadian army at age 15 in 1939, emerges from her pages as a resourceful youth who coped well with the surprises he encountered.

      The novel opens in the spring of 1939, at Niagara Falls, ON, where Richard yearns for more of a life than his laundress mother can provide. His father, a World War I veteran, died in Richard's infancy. Seeking odd jobs to earn money for a bicycle, he meets two men who become father figures to him. Mr. Vogel, a new Canadian from Holland, hires him to help with his fruit and market gardening business and allows him to hone his mechanical skills on a tractor, a rarity at the time. Vogel's stories about Holland during World War I and his immigration experiences broaden Richard's horizons.

      Richard also delivers bread for the home-based bakery owned and operated by the Blacks, an older couple in the neighbourhood. Every July, Mr. Black goes to an army camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake for two weeks, and his enthusiasm captures Richard's interest. Attending the camp's opening ceremonies, Richard is swept into a mock exercise which makes army life seem fun. Mr. Black then gets Richard into a two-week signalling course under the name of someone who, at the last minute, couldn't attend.

      Mention of the year 1939 will put older readers on alert, for, in September of that year, Canada declared war on Nazi Germany following Hitler's invasion of Poland. Mr. Black sees the army as Richard's chance to learn a trade, but readers will tense up, knowing that he could die while serving his country. Amy McLaughlin, the girl next door, writes to Richard that Mrs. Black blames Mr. Black for filling his head with "army nonsense." In fact, Richard enjoyed learning new skills at the camp, and he sneaks off to enlist, unaided by his well-meaning friend.

      "This will be no different than going to training camp," Richard tells himself. Although estranged from his mother and lonely for home, he handles everything he meets with a sense of adventure, whether it be poor living conditions, tough training or lack of equipment. Letters from Amy and the Blacks keep up his spirits. Mr. Black's words pop into Richard's head frequently, showing readers that, in the absence of supportive parents, young people can find mentors to help them through life's challenges.

      Maruno selects and highlights those incidents in her father's diary which will interest readers most. One is a food fight at the Scottish base. The men are frustrated by the poor living conditions and food. One day, everyone in the mess hall, including the sergeants, throw their plates of beans at the cook. Ordered into the parade square, they all admit to having thrown food. Since there is no facility large enough to lock all of them up, they receive only a scolding.

      Another key incident, presented dramatically and suspensefully, occurs when Richard, out on his motor bike on a country road in England, finds a crashed German plane and a parachute hanging from a tree - but no body. His handling of the situation earns him praise from Major (later General) McNaughton. The most dramatic plot point has to do with the London Blitz in the summer of 1940. This is not a gory novel; the saddest death occurs back home in Canada.

      Maruno excels at presenting scenes, rather than telling readers what to think. When Richard meets his aunts on his mother's side of the family in England, their behaviour shows readers why Richard's mother has been so depressed and negative. Clearly, without any financial or moral support from her girlhood home in England, she felt very alone in her struggle to survive in Canada with her young son. Later, readers observe, from Richard's homecoming scene, that his enlistment was the catalytic event that roused his mother from her lethargy. Readers like to intuit things without having everything spelled out, and Maruno allows readers to do that.

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Latta's most recent novel, The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, baico@bellnet.ca ) is for young people.

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

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