CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 21 . . . . June 20, 2003
It is 1919. The Great War - World War I - has ended, and Charlie Wilcox has finally returned to Brigus, Newfoundland. He is now seventeen, and three years have passed since he stowed away on a ship, expecting to follow family tradition and prove himself worthy of a life "on the ice" (i.e. on a sealing ship). Fate and the malice of a local bully led Charlie to hide in a container bound for the hold of a seafaring ship. Ultimately, Charlie finds himself in Europe and, despite his youth, serves as a medic in field hospitals in exchange for food and clothing. The story of his life at the front, until the time of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, at the Somme, is told in Charlie Wilcox.
Three years later, Charlie is now at home, and in a series of flashbacks told to Claire Guy, a childhood friend who is now quite attractive in a way that he hadn't quite noticed before, he tells his story of the war that he remembers. It is not a glamorous war: life is a dreary existence spent in mud-lined trenches or in the blood and stench of the field hospitals in which Charlie assists. Friends die, sometimes heroically, sometimes ignominiously, all in the service of decisions made by politicians far from the horrors of the front. This book pulls no punches about the hell that is war. Death is omnipresent, and Charlie has some extraordinary brushes with it, as well as some incredible luck. Forced to bail out of an airplane, he and a truly insufferable Brit, Charles Askwith Weston, find themselves behind enemy lines. Weston's facility with languages and an undeniable talent for quick-thinking ultimately gets them, first back to no man's land, and then, finally, to the possibility of a return home to Newfoundland. And, when Charlie finally gets back home, he returns with a heavy heart. His friend, Phil Jackson, has died, volunteering for a dangerous mission in the hope that it would get him a pass back to Britain and the opportunity to marry his pregnant sweetheart, Helena. Charlie knows that Phil's mother would absolutely disapprove of Helena's status, and he wrestles with his conscience as to how he might make the situation right. But, as Claire points out, "people change." It is Mrs. Jackson who sees that the Helena and the baby are the gift that has been granted, in exchange for Phil. And so, having disburdened himself of his story of the Great War, he is ready to face a new life: he now knows that he is meant to spend his life , not "on the ice," but in hospitals and examining rooms. Medicine, not the sea, is his destiny, and it is one that he will share with Claire.
Charlie Wilcox's Great War does not just continue Charlie's story; it adds many new dimensions. It is certainly more sophisticated in its narrative, and Sharon Mckay provides both a Prologue and Epilogue to fill in gaps for those who haven't read Charlie Wilcox and for those who, after two books, want to know what happens to all these people (all of whom are real people)! I liked this book even more than its "prequel" - it truly depicts the horror and the valour of World War I, but it also has a dry wit that is not out of keeping with the strangeness of war. Charlie Wilcox's Great War isn't just a wonderful novel- it would also make a great supplementary work for Canadian Studies/Canadian History classes wanting to know more about life during the war that made Canadians significant combatants on international fields of battle.
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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