Glory or gory? Caitlin Walker

The Bakehouse
Joy Cowley
Gecko Press, $20.00,
ISBN 9781776570072

Viewed from a distance of seventy-plus years, 1943 was history soup, everything mixed up, and it was difficult to separate reality from what he had read or been told. One event, though, was crystal clear and refused to be forgotten.

The Bakehouse by Joy Cowley is the story of Bert, a now octogenarian remembering his life as an 11-year-old living in Wellington during WWII, and the discovery he made in the Geronimo Bakehouse. Although as a young boy he glorified war, pretending to be a soldier and shooting the “Huns and Japs”, throughout the story he begins to see the reality of war and its effects.

I always love a book that makes me think, especially when the lessons are hidden amidst an exciting plot and beautiful language. This book ticks all those boxes. Cowley’s figurative and descriptive language is gorgeous, especially in her comparisons. These two descriptions of silence tell their own tale: “The silence in his unit was warm, smelling of disinfectant and last night’s fish-and-chip wrappers” and “A minute was a long time. The silence crashed around them like breaking waves, and then it was over.” The focus is on plot, not language, which means that there is constantly something happening. I enjoyed the fast pace and the feeling of anticipation throughout this whole book (eg will Meg tell all?), but the thing I loved most about this book were the questions and messages it examined.

In many respects, Bert’s life is not all that different to mine. We are both teenagers who live with our two sisters and parents. He lives in the city that I have lived in and loved for my whole life, and although Wellington 74 years ago was very different to the city now, I still recognise my city – especially in remarks about the hills and wind. I totally get the struggle of living on the top of a steep hill! These similarities made the differences even more striking, and I constantly found myself pausing to marvel at these. What if it was my father’s newspaper declaring New Zealand was about to be invaded, my mother crushing boiled lollies to make sugar, my house being searched by military police? How would I act and react in the situations that Bert found himself in? Would I be brave or would I be scared? What would I think of the war?

Because one of the biggest things I took away from The Bakehouse was what the characters thought of war. What is the point of war? Cowley explores this idea in the text without ever actually asking the reader, but making them ask themselves through the characters’ perspectives. One of these characters is Bert’s mother. She is completely against war, saying that “Every person killed in a war is some mother’s child”, an idea that Bert doesn’t understand. How can he reconcile his idea of the Huns and Japs that are going to invade New Zealand with an idea of them as people? He and his father both see war as glorious and right, and both of them wish that they were able to go to war. Bert, as an old man, confronts this idea a little, through his interaction with the younger generation, but the person that makes Bert and the reader really confront the war is Donald.

Donald runs away from the war just before they are sent to fight the Japanese. When Bert meets him, he is sick, injured and terrified. He tells Bert horror stories about the brutality of the camp, and he talks about how he is incapable of killing and why. This drives the message home about what war is really like. It’s not glory – it’s gory. (For older readers interested in this idea, I recommend the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen.)

It is a credit to Cowley’s masterful writing that, although The Bakehouse is targeted at younger readers (the narrator is 11, and I’m thinking of a target audience of around 9–13), it was still an absolute joy for me to read at 16. It really is an outstanding piece of children’s literature, and one that should be cherished and shared. I only wish this book had been released when I was Bert’s age, so that I could have made the most of this wonderful book. As it is, I’m off to reread my old Cowley books, so that I can escape back into the wonderfulness of her writing, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Caitlin Walker is aged 16, from Wellington.
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Posted in Literature, Review, YA Reviewers, Young adults
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