Heroics, Ken Catran

Best and Bravest: Kiwis Awarded the Victoria Cross
Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson
HarperCollins, $17.99,
ISBN 1869505239

Soldier in the Yellow Socks: Charles Upham, Our Finest Fighting Soldier
Janice Marriott
HarperCollins, $19.99,
ISBN 1869505697

War Zones
Helen Beaglehole
Steele Roberts, $19.99,
ISBN 187733880X

Books on war can be interesting or deadly boring – no pun intended. My own preference is for those that give the first-hand account, the impact on the human characters; I would rather read one diary than a dozen books on campaigns and tactics. Also, books on the minor and little-known dramas that war produces. History is written by the victors, and they tend to enhance the heroism and obscure the less-than-heroic.

The Best and the Bravest by Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson is about the Victoria Crosses won by New Zealanders in our various conflicts, and I cannot help wondering how long it will be before this type of book falls victim to the internet. The events are told in a straightforward and pacy manner – some, such as Sergeant James Ward (RNZAF) crawling out on the wing of a burning Wellington bomber to beat out the flames are truly inspiring – but even repeated accounts of heroism can become tedious and repetitive. And, apart from their heroics, the people themselves do not emerge. Even a little research into who they were, how war shaped them – what made the hero – would have made each entry a more satisfying and well-rounded read.

Perhaps one of our greatest wartime heroes was Charles Upham, whose Victoria Cross and bar made him only the third ever to be honoured in this way. Despite this and despite his background being among conflicts in Crete and North Africa (which should be enshrined as Gallipoli is), he has been badly served in our history books. The one biography by Sandford only hints at the complex character which I think Charles Upham was. Janice Marriott’s Soldier in the Yellow Socks will at least redress this among New Zealand children.

Biographies are not always readable, particularly when they are reduced to essentials to connect with the notoriously low attention-span of the modern kid. But Marriott’s talents are well up to this challenge, and she has produced a very readable account of Upham’s exploits; the narrative is tightly driven and does not waste a syllable on indulgence. Nor does the text condescend to the reader. The action sequences are not dwelt on to the point of blood and guts but still convey the intense and bitter fighting, and Upham’s own bravery. Also his personality, his somewhat reclusive but dogmatic attitude, his dislike of publicity and disdain of military protocol – hence the episode of the yellow socks.

The book ably recounts Upham’s background, his joining the Army, and the fighting in Greece and Crete that revealed him as the born soldier he was and helped create his legend. From there to North Africa and the battles that gave him his first Victoria Cross, Upham’s character comes across in Marriott’s contained prose. So sustained and incredible are his heroics that you are left with the definite impression that being wounded and taken prisoner probably saved his life. A good balance with the illustrations has been achieved. (Some illustrators believe authors should simply stand aside, preferably with a deep bow, and let them, in the words of one, “put the icing on the cake”.) Some of Bruce Potter’s line illustrations are taken from actual photographs, which lends a nice authentic feel to the text. All are well-balanced and give a feel for conflict and for people.

The novel War Zones by Helen Beaglehole deals with a little-known aspect of WWII: the treatment of conscientious objectors by the authorities and the subsequent fallout on their families. New Zealand chose to deal with its “conchies” in an exemplary and savage manner – treatment authorised by Prime Minister Fraser, himself a conscientious objector in WWI. Tom Bullock’s Dad is a “conchie” imprisoned under the wartime Act, and Tom, his mother and sister Ginny must go and stay with his grandfather in the country. There Tom meets Margaret Drummond, daughter of a Jehovah’s Witness family, whose mother is imprisoned for distributing pamphlets against the war. In a new school, feeling the outsider, he hopes nobody will find out his father is a “conchie”.

Beaglehole has written a compelling account of a family at war, and Tom (the novel is written in the first person) comes across as a real and sensitive person. The story opens with a delightful series of (undelivered) letters from Tom to his grandfather, including apologies for various mishaps at milking – “now I know where you put the full-cream milk, I shall not feed it to the pigs again.”

Beaglehole is good at evoking small-town life and has a sure touch with dialogue, a little modern idiom showing here and there. You get to know Tom and his sister Ginny, and sympathise with his increasing dilemmas as events from the outside world catch up with him. In our world, issues of pacifism and the morality of war are blurred, and the arguments for and against war lost in media and political spin. I would like to have known more about the Jehovah’s Witness attitudes, and about pacifism in general – why it provoked such a bitter backlash. Even accepting Tom’s age, these could have been more fully brought out.

The narrative also too cautiously skirts around issues of family abuse, incest (only hinted at) and adolescent sex. Tom’s relationship with Margaret is well done but not fully developed, avoiding giving the reader a moral choice. Even allowing for the differing attitudes of the times, some of these central issues demand careful reading, not something your average teen gives a book. Teenage readers tend to “gallop” through books, to read quickly because there is always something else to do. This sort of reader would therefore lose part of the plot, while a good (as in thorough) reader would appreciate the novel a lot more. It does unfold slowly, and I was left wanting to know a little more about Tom’s view of his family. His relationships with his mother, grandfather and grandmother are there, but, given the strong storyline, could stand more development. Family problems going back to WWI are, again, only hinted at.

Having said that, Tom has an identity that lets us know and sympathise with him as he makes his stumbling way to a better understanding, although the path is littered with mishaps. A section that stands out for concise and vivid narration is the one where Tom dives into the river to save Margaret from drowning. Overall, War Zones is a good read.  It takes an unpopular and (for modern teens) unriveting subject and turns it into a slow-paced but effective drama. It’s the sort of book that ought to end up as a class set, showing social values that are alive today as they were in 1942.


Ken Catran writes for young readers. His Sea of Mutiny and Red Leader Down were reviewed in our August 2006 issue. 

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Posted in Children, Fiction, History, Literature, Non-fiction, Review, War
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