My Brother’s War
Written by David Hill
Auckland, New Zealand: Puffin, 2012, pp. 252
The 2013 winner of the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Award for Junior Fiction is David Hill’s My Brother’s War. It is the story of two New Zealand brothers at the start of World War I as those in the British Commonwealth are called to join the war on behalf of Britain. The older brother, William, is taken by the idea of being a hero and joining the action of the war to fight against Germany and enlists. The younger brother, Edmond, decides he cannot kill other people and does not enlist–even when it is mandated–instead becoming a conscientious objector.
In the end, both boys set sail for Britain and then France on different ships–William as part of his company and with much fanfare, and Edmond forced with shame and ridicule as his punishment for not complying with the law. Both end up experiencing the pain, devastation and cruelty of war as well as the small kindnesses of humans under stress and in highly emotionally charged settings. Both brothers believe strongly in what they are doing and both face dire consequences for their choices. In the end, William and Edmond meet on a battlefield in France with a new understanding of each other. Edmond is aware that those who enlisted believed they could do some good and William realizes that there might be a reason to protest what happens in war. Both come to think of the other in different terms.
The book is divided into 7 parts and includes the voice of each brother telling about their experiences at that stage of the war. Each part (save one, when they are in the heat of battle and no one could write a letter) begins with a letter from one brother back home to their mother and sister, Jessie. Whenever the voice changes, it is indicated by a letter home from that brother.
Hill brings a believable voice to each brother. He does not mince words, euphemize or make situations less bleak than they are. On the other hand, he does not wallow in the cruelties of war. He has pitched to the junior fiction level—the 9-14 year old—and has done so well. While the ending brings mutual understanding and points toward a happy resolution, it is not so cheery as to seem totally unbelievable—but more pleasant than the reader had feared along the way.
Each brother’s letters are in a different font, so it is easy to keep track of who is narrating and which story is being told. Many of the pages look as though they have a mud spot on them—as if they were read in a trench—which gives a sense of placing the reader in the setting in a way that few chapter books attempt to do. The reading is fast-paced, which mirrors the action.
At the beginning of his career, Hill was a secondary teacher for 14 years before becoming a full-time writer. He has had a varied and versatile life as a writer in New Zealand from journalism to reviewer to teacher of writing to writer of plays as well as fiction. David has spent much of his life around youth and is able to speak to the issues and concerns of that age group. As well as winning the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Award, he has won the LIANZA (Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa) Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction in 2003 and the Margaret Mahy Award of the Children’s Literature Foundation of New Zealand in 2005 (http://www.storylines.org.nz/Profiles/Profiles+D-H/David+Hill.html).
Another book about someone who didn’t fight in a war that could pair with this book is Carolyn Reeder’s Shades of Gray (1999) where the protagonist finds out his uncle did not fight in the Civil War that left him orphaned. There have been a number of books written about brothers or family who make different choices in wars such as James Collier’s My Brother Sam is Dead (2005) set in the Revolutionary War and Across Five Aprils (Irene Hunt, 2002) set in the Civil War. In both of these the plot hinges on choosing different sides to fight in the war rather than one brother who chooses not to fight. Nonetheless, the family strife, different loyalties and emotional weight of My Brother’s War would pair well with any of these. Anita Lobel’s picture book from a number of years ago (and speaking to the situation of the Vietnam War) Potatoes, Potatoes (1967) has a mother wishing both her boys would stop fighting—no matter what side they are on. She sees no purpose in the destruction and would rather they help her raise potatoes to feed people. This one would work well to express the sense of the purposelessness or damage and death in war as Edmond feels in My Brother’s War.
Another wonderful pairing would be Nice Day for a War, the 2011 non-fiction winner of the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Award. It is the story of Cyril Elliot told through his diary, documents and the reconstructed history by his grandson, Matt Elliot and graphic novelist Chris Slane. This is the same war in the same time period by another New Zealander with a number of the same battles and events mentioned—only in non-fiction form. It makes a striking pairing and it is interesting that these two books came out within a year of each other.
Because of the number of countries involved in WWI, including the United States, it is in some ways not a story of any one culture but all the cultures drawn into the war. While there are a number of culturally specific aspects to the story (names of specific units or the specific military structure of the battalion) authentic to New Zealand, the theme of going to war or deciding not to go to war is a universal one. This story would help young people in any culture consider what choices family and friends in our own context have had to make.
Kathy Meyer Reimer, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana