The Bantam and the Soldier
Jennifer Beck, illustrated by Robyn Belton
Scholastic New Zealand, $21.95
ISBN 186943 1553
Modern New Zealand child to great-grandmother: Why was Pop wearing these clothes in this photo?
Gran: That’s his uniform. When he was a soldier in the war.
Child: A soldier! Pop?
Gran: Certainly. They all had to go to war, you know, the men.
Child: But he didn’t fight, did he?
Gran: He did.
Child: Not kill people!
Gran: Ah well … they had to, dear. It was kill or be killed.
Child: Who did they kill?
Gran: Well, the enemy. That is, the enemy of those times. (Pause) Germans, actually … and …
Child: What? Like Uncle Herman?
Gran: Ah … yes. Uncle Herman’s grandfather was fighting on the other side. He was shot down, as a matter of fact. In his fighter plane.
Child: Not by Pop!?
Gran: No, no.
Child: But he did murder some people.
Gran: Not murder … kill.
Child: What’s the difference?
Gran: I’m darned if I know, dear. All I know is your dear old pop hardly goes through a night without having a terrible dream about the war.
Child: Don’t cry, Gran.
Gran: And to think he went away a laughing, strong, happy, fit, handsome young man. We’d just been married. And when he came back … we hardly knew how to speak to each other. He thought he was going off on a wonderful adventure, you see. Wouldn’t listen to me about it. Instead of an adventure, he went through hell. And still, to this day, he can’t talk about it. Not even to me.
Most adults these days avoid talking about war with children because the obscenity of it is as hard to explain as the worst sexual depravities. It is a subject that has been decked out in the language of propaganda, grandiose lies, neutral-sounding military jargon, half-truths and euphemisms. Previously, excitement over its tactics and gamesmanship was commonly passed from fathers to sons as a matter of course, almost as a component of maleness.
But things have changed markedly. These days, in civilised, western-style democracies, it is generally considered outré to encourage little boys to rush around with guns, swords and bows and arrows. Unlike their fathers, teenage boys in the modern western world would probably react with mystification and shock if some mad politician tried to bundle them off to war.
In New Zealand schools, the non-racist, non-judgmental ideal of human behaviour is so universally understood that teachers can find themselves in a strange predicament when the issue of war comes up. Take ANZAC Day. Every year it is necessary that teachers give the kids some idea of what the day is about. Every year the same blank look comes into most children’s eyes. They have to be forced to imagine what protecting their country’s sovereignty could possibly mean. They have to be forced to imagine the men they know dressing up like soldiers and going into battle. They have to be led away from thinking the enemy would have arrived on the scene from outer space.
Someone’s great-grandfather might be brought in to talk about “his” war. He will tell different stories down at the RSA but — generally speaking — when he sees those banks of innocent eyes his talk will focus mainly on the mates he made, the sacrifices the people back home had to make, the good hearts of the people whose lands way across the sea they were protecting. The children are highly approving of these things. They end up, once again, quite unaware of the real horrors of war.
Is this a good thing or not? I have to line up on the side of what some will call sentimentality; I go along with protecting children from an in-depth knowledge of violence and madness. But I also think they need to become increasingly aware that extremes of behaviour truly exist — in real life, not just on television. And how, they may be allowed to ask themselves quite early in life, can a person cope with such extremes?
A vehicle that parents and teachers will find wonderful for opening up Pandora’s box to such understanding is the picture book The Bantam and the Soldier which was launched on ANZAC Day this year. It is an account of a young soldier — a shy farm boy — whose company from “a country on the other side of the world” is trying to hold a little part of France against the (unnamed) enemy. He rescues and nurses back to health a scrawny, misplaced bantam which ends up laying him and his friends an egg a day. In the mud and misery of the mud-filled trenches, the helpful little bantam (called Bertha after the farm boy’s niece back home) becomes the focus of the soldiers’ affection and hope.
It is told in quiet, undramatic language; the illustrations are beautiful. (Some might say too beautiful, given the subject matter.) Both author and illustrator drew on their tenderest feelings of love and gratitude towards the men in their families who had served in the last two world wars. Some very personal memorabilia are distributed through the magnificent end papers — including photos of Arthur, the real farm boy, and his niece Bertha.
This book is a treasure to have and to hold. It could be given with equal validity to a 5-year-old or to an old soldier.
Judith Holloway is a Wellington writer and critic.