Men (and women, too) have gone to war for as many reasons as you can count. I wonder, though, how many have gone to war not out of patriotism or bravery, but out of fear? Fear of being labeled a coward. Fear of being seen as someone who would rather run and hide than fight. You would think self preservation would make all of us want to run and hide in the extreme circumstances that war puts soldiers in, but pressure from our peers, from the government, from total strangers on the street makes most of us bow down and do things we would prefer not to do.
It was not purely by chance that Michael Morpurgo chose the family name Peaceful for the surname of his characters in his 2003 YA novel, Private Peaceful. The name actually has double meaning as he came across the "Peaceful" on a cemetery headstone in Belgium. And of course there is the added irony that two Peaceful boys would go to war, for different reasons, but neither out of a desire to fight and die bravely for their country. But they go and do their duty only to have everything turn out horribly wrong.
"They've gone now, and I'm alone at last. I have the whole night ahead of me, and I won't waste a single moment of it. I shan't sleep it away. I won't dream it away either. I mustn't, because every moment of it will be far too precious."
And so begins Tommo's story. It's five past ten, and on this night, more than any other night of his life he wants to feel alive. Tommo is the youngest of three brothers. Big Joe, a gentle soul who would never harm another looks upon life and his family with childlike innocence. As a baby he contracted meningitis and will forever remain in a world of his own. Both Tommo and Charlie are fiercely loyal to Big Joe and they judge friends and acquaintances by how they treat their elder sibling.
Over the course of this long night Tommo looks back on his young life and all the things that make him who he is and which have put him into the situation he now finds himself. He carries with him a secret--that he feels responsible for the death of his father. It is this death that changed his family's lives, already difficult, but also drew them in closer together. James Peaceful was a forester who worked for the family upon whose land they live. Despite his death, the Peacefuls are allowed to stay in their cottage, a home meant only for a worker of the Great House, but every small victory is hard earned and begrudgingly given.
In each successive chapter, with the clock ticking away to some unknown ending more of the Peaceful's lives are revealed. Their hopes and dreams and aspirations as well as their fears and tragedies--all filtered through Tommo's perceptions. Each chapter opens in the present, which is quickly understood to be the battlefields of WWI. But until past and present meet and come together the story rolls out in what seems to be a series of related vignettes until it's understood more or less what is about to happen. The details are hazy until the very end but it's with an increasing sense of doom that Tommo tells his story.
This is heartbreaking reading. Heartbreaking because it's a war story that didn't need to happen. I don't think I am giving anything away by saying Tommo goes to war, a war he is too young to fight in by the way, because he doesn't want to be labeled a coward. At least in part. Charlie is forced to go to war, a war he had no plans to take part in but will do so to ensure his family is taken care of. Tommo demands to go too, in order to look after his brother, but it's with the image in his mind of a woman pointing her finger at him for not stepping forward immediately and joining up to go off and fight. It reminded me of Peter Malouf's excellent novel Fly Away Peter.
In his afterword, Micheal Morpurgo explains his intentions for writing the book. It's what happens to the Peaceful brothers on the battlefield, what happened to many British soldiers during the war, that Morpurgo writes about so sympathetically and eloquently but never sentimentalizing the events. Many wrongs are perpetrated on the characters in this book, and history is filled with such wrongs. Sadly, these wrongs that happened during the war have never been admitted to by the British government and the solders' actions behind them never excused.
So often YA literature is not only well written but thoughtfully written. This is a book to get younger audiences thinking and discussing but can be equally appreciated by adults as well. I hadn't realized until I read the afterword that Michael Murpurgo is also the author of War Horse, which was made into a successful film as well as adapted to the stage.
I read this for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong. You can read her thoughts on the book here, as well as Judith's of Reader in the Wilderness here. This is a book I can highly recommend. June's read is Fear by Gabriel Chevallier.