With the country in the midst of sesquicentennial fever, publishers are making an effort to ensure that another important anniversary isn’t overlooked: the centennial of the First World War battle of Vimy Ridge. Three new books take kids into the realities of a war many of them have no concept of.
In Innocent Heroes, Sigmund Brouwer combines a fictional narrative about three soldiers (Jake, Charlie, and Thomas) and various animals on the front in France with non-fiction explanations of how the real-life animal inspirations were used in battle. The eight vignettes (each featuring a different animal) culminate in the battle of Vimy, with an epilogue that follows the human characters (and one canine) into their postwar lives.
The fictional portion of the book gives readers a vested interest in the fates of the animals, while also providing practical information about the realities of life at the front. Brouwer also uses the narrative to expose the unfair treatment of indigenous soldiers, both during and after the war. The book is a winning combination of fact and fiction, though more sensitive readers might find themselves tearing up from time to time.
Geared to a younger audience, The Vimy Oaks tells the story of Leslie H. Miller, a farmer from Scarborough, Ontario, who fought at Vimy and collected acorns from the decimated oak trees there. Upon his return from the war, he planted the seeds, and while the farm is no more, the trees stand to this day. In Vimy, many other trees have since grown on the ridge’s once barren and scarred wasteland, but there are no oaks. That will change when several saplings, grown from the oaks on Miller’s former property, are planted at Vimy as part of this year’s centennial proceedings.
Linda Granfield’s text and Brian Deines’s illustrations come together to form a cohesive story about one young soldier’s experience of war, and his ability to maintain his love of natural beauty throughout. The book also contains photos and excerpts from Miller’s diary, which add immediacy to the story. It’s a touching tribute, and an easy vehicle to introduce younger readers to the war.
The most stunning of the three, both in terms of visuals and honest portrayals of the war, is A Soldier’s Sketchbook, which consists of the edited wartime diaries of R.H. Rabjohn, a trained artist whose duties during his three years at war included drawing dugouts and captured trenches. Rabjohn’s visual diary lends the volume its imagery, which is both beautifully rendered and heartbreaking in its record of the young soldier’s bombed-out surroundings and his fallen brethren. The excellent and succinct text, written by historian and author John Wilson, provides context for Rabjohn’s short diary entries, many of which merely scratch the surface of the suffering he experienced during his time at war.
All three of these volumes have something valuable to offer young readers, not the least of which is the assertion that the battle of Vimy Ridge a century ago was a defining moment in our nation’s history. But they also remind readers that while there is glory to be found in war, war itself is never glorious.