Children’s books: Boyne and Gallagher explore young lives amid the chaos of war
Troubles children: two little boys look through barbed wire at British soldiers on the Crumlin Road in Belfast. Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images
The events of the first and second World Wars have rarely featured in Irish children’s fiction. The best known of the few exceptions to this generalisation has been John Boyne’s internationally successful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and Boyne returns to a wartime setting in his new novel, Stay Where You Are & Then Leave (Doubleday, £10.99). Here, however, the focus is on the 1914-18 conflict and how it affects a working-class London family and their neighbours living close to King’s Cross railway station.
Although there are some searing battlefield and hospital scenes, the emphasis throughout is less on military matters than on their domestic repercussions. Children, parents, relatives and friends of the Summerfield family all bring their differing perspectives to bear on what happens to them in the four years following July 28th, 1914, resulting in a novel (and social document) richly empathetic in its understanding of humanity’s strength and resourcefulness when confronted by appalling tragedy.
On the day that war breaks out Alfie Summerfield is celebrating his fifth birthday, but, given what is happening in the wider world, the celebrations are muted, in spite of the best efforts of Margie and Georgie, his parents, to ensure that life goes on as usual.
Four years later there can be no such pretence. Alfie has witnessed his milkman father leave behind his beloved horse and cart to become a soldier, and he has witnessed also the devastating consequences this has had in shattering his mother’s happiness. “It had never,” the boy reflects, “been like this before the war began.”
Initially there are letters from Georgie, essentially light hearted in tone, to be read and shared, but over time their tone changes as the full horror of trench warfare becomes apparent. “Why,” Georgie writes, “did I come here, I don’t know. God, what a mistake.”
Margie, hoping to shield Alfie from the harsher of these realities, attempts to hide the letters and fabricates a story of Georgie’s being “on a secret mission”. But, through a combination of initiative, luck and coincidence, Alfie eventually discovers the horrifying truth of the situation: his father is a patient in a hospital for the shell-shocked, badly damaged both physically and mentally.
These hospital interludes constitute the most memorable pages in Boyne’s novel: the reunion of son and father, when it comes, is a moment of haunting poignancy. “It was,” Alfie realises, “as if they’d swapped roles . . . as if he was the adult and Georgie the child.”
They constitute also an appropriate prelude to the novel’s concluding pages, in which, another four years on, another birthday is being celebrated. The healing process is complete, and one of Alfie’s presents is a copy of Dickens’s Great Expectations.
It is also in these closing pages that the reader’s attention is directed, for the last time, to the two words – “home” and “love” – that reverberate throughout Boyne’s narrative and that here are tellingly interlinked. On the French battlefield, Georgie assures us, it had been “the idea that one day we’d get to go home again” that had sustained him and his fellow soldiers. But home, as Alfie had earlier pointed out, was not simply England or London: it was “home home”.
And there were others for whom the notion of home had its special significance, not least Mr Janácek, a Czech refugee, and his daughter Kalena, about to return to their native Prague now that hostilities have ceased. He had once confided to Alfie that he had originally moved to London “for the best reason in the world . . . for love”, and his explanation now comes back to the young teenager as he tries to convey to his father why he had gone to such trouble to find him. He knows the words – they had been Mr Janácek’s – but he is not quite ready to articulate them; that will come later. It is difficult to imagine a more loving ending to Boyne’s novel than the one with which we are provided here.
Wars closer to our own time and place serve as background for Brian Gallagher’s Stormclouds (O’Brien Press, €7.99), in which we return to the Belfast of August 1969. As his previous children’s novels have shown, Gallagher has a particular interest in examining how youthful friendships can be severely, and sometimes tragically, tested in a world of adult prejudice and suspicion. Here Maeve and Sammy, 12-year-olds from, respectively, the nationalist and loyalist communities, find themselves brought together and eventually come to enjoy one another’s company.
This basic situation, a common trope in “Troubles” children’s fiction, can easily degenerate into stereotyping, but Gallagher explores it with considerable freshness through his decision to provide Maeve and Sammy with two further friends, Dylan and Emma, Jewish twins from Washington visiting Belfast.
“Everywhere we go we seem to be . . . on the edge, looking in,” says Emma. But the young Americans are not merely detached observers. They have a significant role in detecting, and expressing, the futility of what they see happening around them.
Different, in their Belfast context, in so many ways themselves, they are the most perceptive of commentators on what Sammy at one moment describes as “the chaos of a city at war” and on the numerous “differences” that create its special problems.