Earth Dragon, Fire Hare
There seems to have been a rash of books recently about our involvement in the two world wars, and both these YA books deal with Kiwis in WWII. Telling Lies, the debut novel by Tricia Glensor, is set in German-occupied France in 1942, and tells the story of 15-year-old Simone and her brave rescue of downed Kiwi airman Paul. It is also a very personal story for Glensor, inspired by the French Resistance’s rescue and support of her father and two others in 1942.
It has all the elements in place for compelling YA fiction: the paranoia, fear, betrayal and acts of great self-sacrificing bravery. Glensor shows the impact of Nazi occupation on a small, tight community, the numb grief of bereaved parents and children, the incredible fortitude and creativity of those involved in the Resistance.
Simone is depicted as a gutsy girl on the cusp of adulthood, viewing her secure family-orientated life through eyes made fresh by the occupation of their village by German forces: “We never used to notice silences,” she thinks, reflecting how there now seems little else to talk about but war, and how every action must be screened against detection: “Everything we do these days has to look like something else.” Her friend Theo says: “ ‘It’s like we’re on a train going into a tunnel. You can see it coming. You know it’s going to be dark and horrible. And you don’t know what you’ll see when you come out the other side.’ ” There is also a telling moment when Simone questions the religious tenets she’s been raised by: “If God is real, He wouldn’t be letting all this happen …. What good is praying going to do?”
This book has a real, moving story to tell, although at times I felt at arm’s length from the characters, and the measured politeness of the language sometimes seems at odds with the subject matter and intended audience. I wonder if Telling Lies, a book with many lovely descriptions, good insights and clean, clear writing, might have been better marketed as middle fiction, for age 10 and up. It would have been well received as such.
Ken Catran’s Earth Dragon, Fire Hare is a different beast altogether, and a much more intense read for an increasingly sophisticated YA audience – and oldies, too. Tightly plotted, complex in its philosophical dilemmas, it flings the reader head first into the mud, terror, hardship and ideologically-driven horror of the war in the jungles of Malaya – during both the overthrow of the Japanese and the later Communist rebel struggle for freedom. You smell the rotting corpses, shudder at the thought of what is lurking in the heaving jungle, feel the hand of fear that squeezes at the characters’ guts.
It’s told primarily from the dual points of view of Kiwi soldier Peter and Communist guerrilla Ng, and each protagonist feels real and alive. We understand their motives, like them for their moments of compassion and vulnerability, and grieve with them for their losses. This is no glorification of war; the book reveals the hypocrisy, the arrogant decision-making of superiors on all sides, the toll on the poor civilians and the utter waste of human life.
Parallels between this war and current conflicts are cleverly drawn for careful readers. There is (archetypal Trickster) Captain Staples’s observation, “ ‘We have again armed a dispossessed people and taught them how to fight’ ”, and the fine line between freedom-fighter versus “terrorist”, with Ng thinking, “ ‘They call us Communists terrorists – but who are the real terrorists when they act like that?’ ”
The complicated issue of land appropriation and cultural destruction in the midst of war adds a nuanced dimension to the book, as do Ng’s observations about the Kiwi soldiers’ place in the war: “ ‘Colonial lackeys of their British masters, brutal and uneducated and fighting only for money or beer; cannon fodder for the Americans and too stupid to realise it.’ ” Such strong, challenging themes will make any reader think past the obvious to the issues underpinning the many reasons for violent resistance, and to the shared humanity of us all.
Mandy Hager is a Kapiti Coast YA novelist.