When Our Jack Went to War
Random House, $20.00,
When Our Jack Went to War is “a fictional story based on a real life event”. In her author’s note, Sandy McKay explains that the book is based on the story of her great-uncle John who was killed at Passchendaele during WWI. McKay’s research into ANZAC soldiers’ personal letters and first-hand accounts of the war inspired the novel’s epistolary format, which reveals the tale through letters sent between 13-year-old Tom and his idolised 16-year-old brother Jack, who, as the novel progresses, responds from his training camp at Trentham in Wellington, the troopship en route north, various stations in Britain, France, the Battle of Messines and, finally, inevitably, Passchendaele. The brothers’ letters are one-for-one until p82, when Tom writes two in a row, and the reader, also, comes to dread the sight of the telegram man.
Jack is portrayed as one of the 180 soldiers of the 2nd Otago Division, 148 of whom lost their lives in one day in New Zealand’s worst ever military disaster. Tom’s romanticisation of military life (“marching round hills sounds way more exciting than doing sums”) is a warning sign that he will soon come to feel differently about the war: books about older brothers going off to war – whether or not they return – often share an emotional and narrative arc, but McKay isn’t trying to reinvent the brother-going-to-war story. The novel isn’t about Jack’s tumultuous journey and the harsh realities of military service (as David’s Hill’s book is, see below). Rather, it is about the touching relationship between brothers whose lives have become wholly distinct; it is about the refreshing candour and pragmatism of a young man who, having recently been bereaved of his father, must become dependable for his mother and his community; and, finally, it is about the isolated community itself, bereft of fathers, uncles, brothers.
Realist historical fiction for young adults is a relative rarity, particularly for the younger side of YA fiction. (I would suggest that this novel is really junior fiction, ideal for 9- to 12-year-old readers.) There are plenty of books with historical settings (medieval fantasy, for example), but those books rarely prioritise historical authenticity so successfully. In a beautiful Longacre production, McKay’s novel includes copies of official documents from the era: newspaper articles, courtmartial notices, sentencing notices, death notices, rolls of honour, all of which add variety and pace and fill in the portrait of rural New Zealand life during wartime. The novel succeeds in making a culturally and socio-politically removed story accessible and meaningful to a young contemporary readership. While Tom appears overly earnest, this is because McKay has avoided modernising conduct and idiom. Tom’s exchanges with Jack have far less of the shorthand jargon pseudo-machismo of much contemporary YA fraternal relationships. Although it does create a slight barrier to entry, the candour of his language makes the book accessible to a younger YA audience. The short bibliography and information pages at the end not only make the story “more real” for its readers, but help the reader to cope with the emotional intensity of the final pages. This is a sincere and heartfelt book, which will give young readers a sense of New Zealand life during WWI.
David Hill’s Brave Company is another historical wartime story with 16-year-old Russell enlisted to represent New Zealand – this time, aboard a United Nations navy ship called Taupo, heading for Korea (“the small Asian country”) in 1950. It is telling that this book includes the word “brave” in its title. It purports to be about the discovery and complication of bravery, but the book displays neither bravery nor company. (The “company” amounts to an amorphous, undifferentiable character described as “the tattooed sailor” against whom Russell measures his own bravery, and who exists for no other apparent reason.)
Rather than having an older brother’s bravery to live up to, Russell has Uncle Trevor, whom everyone describes as having been a hero, but whom Russell knows to have been a coward and a traitor (because of a letter he found in a drawer, which he takes on face value). On every other page, Russell reminds himself of how much of a coward Uncle Trevor was, until – suitably, around the book’s climax – he finds out that his uncle wasn’t a coward, after all. The transition comes with the turn of a page. Up to p160, Russell’s primary goal in life is to prove that he is nothing like Uncle Trevor. From p161, his primary goal is to prove that he is just like Uncle Trevor. Russell’s character arc is achieved by way of a tent-pole, and it amounts to his realisation that things are not as they first appear.
The Korean boy who steals Russell’s blanket is not a commie thief, but an orphan trying to keep his sister alive through the winter. He sees a group of refugees starving to death in a boat early on and, “for a moment, wonders how long they could survive on the ocean in that boat, then he shrugged. They were probably communists – or cowards, running away from things. Just like his Uncle.” But after the tent-pole discovery about Uncle Trevor risking his life behind enemy lines, Russell “remembers watching the first refugees, on that boat and on the roads and thinking that they were cowards who had run away, that he didn’t want to know. Another thing he felt differently about now.” On first encountering them, he decides, “Japanese people look … strange.” But later, with the benefit of life experience, when he meets a girl his own age, half of whose face was burned in “an explosion”, he decides that a Japanese girl can be “pretty, under her scar tissue”. Disproving the moral of the book, however, Russell is, as he first appears, superficial and unsympathetic.
The book is at its strongest in its action sequences – particularly the scene in which Taupo catches a sandbank – where the writing has pace and suspense. It could be recommended for reluctant readers, reluctantly.
Sometimes, a book can be judged by its cover. That presentation and content are well-matched means that Speed Freak should find its way into the hands of its target audience: a 14-year-old male reader with a keen interest in motor sports. More broadly, young adults who are into competitive sports will find an engaging and well-paced story about a cool, 15-year-old Wellingtonian, Archie, who lives to race and who is on his way to becoming a professional, sponsored driver (and a model big brother to boot). Woven throughout the racing scenes – which accelerate along with Archie’s bid to win the Junior Challenge – are family scenes, school scenes, rival scenes, girlfriend scenes, to be expected from a reasonably formulaic YA novel. In this case, there’s nothing wrong with the formula; just like Archie’s driving method (oiled with lashings of self-help pep-talks, supportive friends and the fact of being the penniless underdog), it inevitably surmounts the token obstacles and wins.
Speed Freak is told in the first person, and we are offered the ins-and-outs of Archie’s game plan together with the effects that the psychological warfare with his main competitor have on him – which amount to not much at all. Archie is perfect. He is a driven youngster who is excellent at everything he does: securing sponsorship; not letting the pressure get to him; driving his own race; heeding good advice; skyping to keep his long-distance relationship going; adapting to the new domestic set-up with his father’s girlfriend and son moving in; becoming the best big brother; and, of course, racing. Perfection runs in the family: Dad is more friend than father; more able mechanic than humiliatingly proud parent. He is so supportive that when he falls ill and is unable to attend one race in Rotorua, Archie’s whole effort to win the Challenge and make it to Europe threatens to come crashing down. But, no, he will manage without Dad’s moral and technical support. He’s got it covered. While the father-son dynamic is – in a way – refreshingly light, the lack of tension leaves nowhere for their relationship to go.
The tension in the non-racing scenes largely comes from the new stepmother, Erica, trying to prevent her seven-year-old son, Felix, from getting into racing, because she is a doctor in the casualty ward and has seen too much “carnage”. But when Archie talks to his father about it – why won’t she stop being so uptight and just let him do what he wants to do? – his father says: “She’s a woman, son. All she wants is for her boy to be safe.” In the final pages, Erica buys Felix a race suit because, she seemingly decides, happiness comes before safety.
Speed Freak offers an accurate portrayal of life as an up-and-coming racing star, and an immersive experience in the world and psychology of racing that is sure to satisfy readers interested in that world.
Caoilinn Hughes’s first collection of poems will appear from Carcanet and Victoria University Press early next year.