________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 15 . . . . March 28, 2003


And in the Morning.

John Wilson.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2003.
198 pp., pbk. & cl., $7.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (cl.)..
ISBN 1-55337-348-0 (pbk.), ISBN 1-55337-400-2 (cl.).

Subject Heading:
Great Britain. Army. Highland Light Infantry, 16th-Fiction.
World War, 1914-1918-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Alexander Gregor.

**** /4


I should have thought the wounded would have been happy to be home for a well-deserved rest, but they just looked tired and downcast. Most shambled along with heads down, faces yellowish and ghostlike, eyes surrounded by bags of skin and cheeks hanging limply. Only their eyes darted about, not resting on any one thing very long.

One man I found particularly disturbing. He passed close by me and our eyes met. His were a deep grey, but they had a haunted, distant look. We were only a few feet apart, yet he did not see me. His focus was on something far more distant than the physical world around him. What horrors was he seeing? Frightening as his face was, I recognized that faraway look – it was Mother’s look in the asylum. Will I look like Mother and this poor soldier after I have been in battle?

Traditional history courses have not done a particularly good job in dealing with an issue central to the contemporary world - war. Beginning with World War I, war became global and something that affected civilians every bit as much as combatants. An understanding of its nature and causes became something which should be part of every person’s general education. Compendia of events and facts are of obvious antiquarian interest for many, but for the purposes of general education, the pressing questions have to do with the broader human dimension: what draws ordinary people into mass movements? What prompts societies to follow leaders – elected or otherwise – into war? What does the experience of war do to human relationships, values, and outlooks? The historically faithful novel is a particularly effective tool for posing and answering those questions, and in this case the skilled hand of an accomplished writer has given us a powerful and moving account. It takes some courage to enter the lists of World War I novelists; that group inarguably has produced the finest body of war literature in the Western World. But, as John Wilson has observed, that literature is primarily the literature of adults (adults who were undeniably young during their experience of conflict, but who are able to look back to it from the perspective of later years). In recasting the tale from the perspective of a boy who never in fact is able to reach the technical age of majority - although ironically becoming by his death at 17 much more of an adult than those considerably older who escaped the conflict – Wilson is able to portray the changing outlook of his protagonist in the actual course of combat rather than allow him to reassemble his transformation in the light of hindsight. That developing outlook, starting from the naive chauvinism and visions of glory as war broke out, and moving on to doubt, confusion and cynicism as the criminal incompetence of the war leaders lays waste his friends and family, is brought to a shocking end as an innocent case of shell-shock results in his senseless trial and execution as a deserter.

     The central figure of the story – Jim Hay - comes from a modest Scottish background, and so reflects nicely the experience of the “common citizen” in attempting to understand the ambiguous and often inconsistent bits of contrived and controlled information that come through about the nature and progress of the war. (The author does a nice job of conveying that cacophony of information and misinformation by interspersing “news clippings” through the text.) Hay’s experience allows the reader to understand how someone could be swept up in a war frenzy, and then kept in a state of continuing uncertainty – until experience and a dawning cynicism allow some inferences about what is really happening. For the protagonist, that was to be followed by the onset of doubt about the cause itself, the values with which he had been raised, and the leaders and system he had been taught to trust (and which ultimately betrayed him).

     In much of the background the novel presents, it follows the typical format of the genre by very effectively portraying the dirt and boredom of the trenches, the danger of patrols and futility of attacks, the numbing horror of shelling, and the gradual desensitization to death and brutality. Through the insertion of letters and diary extracts, the human dimension – of love, of family attachments, of poetry in the midst of despair – is maintained; and it is always clear that what is happening is not to a mass, but to a collection of unique individuals.

     In some respects, the novel has to do with the almost unmatched stupidity and waste that characterized World War I. But more generally and more importantly, it is a depiction of the nature and effect of war per se. In both these dimensions, John Wilson has provided a particularly powerful and effective teaching instrument. It is not a condemnation of war, but rather a portrayal of just what it means at the human level. Any young reader who follows the tale through will emerge with an understanding different from and far richer than that any history book could provide.

Highly Recommended.

Formerly a professor in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba, Alexander Gregor remains a history buff.

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

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