“War is a Bloody Waste.” Not my words, but my father’s- and he served in WWII. So how does the charming Edwardian children’s story relate to War?
Around 1945-1950 I read lots of children’s stories, (even though most of the books my own kids loved were not even written yet,) among them Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit.I loved all the old-fashioned middle class children with their boarding schools and nannies and maids and cake and jam for tea (and three cups of tea at breakfast) and all their adventures. These are the children the editors were thinking of when they rejected – how many times?- J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series. But they were good, and appealed even to a working class little girl for whom jam was still on rations, and the occasional cake was eggless or -yucch- dried egg based. I just re-read Five Children and It, and still enjoyed it, in spite of the elements that are dated.
Indeed Nesbit was an influence on C.S. Lewis when he was inventing his family of children and their adventures in Narnia. Edward Eager, in Half Magic, one of my daughter’s favorites, is also an heir to Nesbit’s imagination.
But those fun children, with their bickering and affection, and adventures, those very children in the early years of the century would have been the age of the young men in the trenches, and the young women driving ambulances or nursing. As a child I never looked forward that way, even though one of my elderly friends was one of the thousands of women who had lost boyfriends or young husbands back then.
So, in 1974, the sixtieth anniversary of WWI, as last year was its hundredth, was a year of commemorations, and Kate Saunders, then fourteen, realized that the boys in Nesbit’s story would have been the age to fight, and later she was moved to write Five Children on the Western Front. I read this without expecting it could both match Nesbit’s style and verve and also deal with what had to include tragedy: it did both though and has joined my list of war books to remember. Like Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful it is readable by young people without avoiding hard realities.
We know there will be death. And death in war is almost always unfair, horrible, wasted -and I would need a thesaurus to expand my sense of horror. Death in a story, death of a character we love has to have reason, has to be redemptive or sacrificial, or have some meaning. War death must make God weep. And here two crystal tears of a god who weeps accompany one hero to the next adventure.