Adapted from her 2009 novel of the same name, Prince Edward Island author Sharon E. McKay’s graphic novel version of War Brothers, illustrated by Daniel Lafrance, is a harrowing journey into the heart of an unthinkable darkness, an inquiry into our potential for violence and courage, and a stunning exploration of a subject that is – thankfully – unfamiliar to most young Canadians. It’s a challenging, uncompromising work and, in its graphic form, a beautiful treatment of stark ugliness.
The son of a wealthy businessman who spends most of his time in England, Jacob is a 14-year-old boy in the Northern Ugandan city of Gulu. As the book opens, he and his friends are preparing to return to school. When they arrive there are new locks on the doors, and a team of security personnel hired by Jacob’s father patrol the grounds. The measures have been put in place to protect the children from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been abducting children, holding them for ransom, and training them as child soldiers in the warlord’s violent rebellion against the Ugandan government.
These precautions ultimately fail. Following a brutal midnight attack, the students are kidnapped and marched into the jungle, driven to the point of exhaustion and near starvation by soldiers barely older than themselves. Will they survive? And, perhaps more crucially, what will they do to survive? What would any of us do?
War Brothers is based on McKay’s exhaustive research and extensive interviews with former child soldiers, and the verisimilitude she brings to her characterization and storytelling renders the abstract concept of child soldiers with an all-too-real clarity. Lafrance’s art adds another layer, transitioning from crisp naturalism to stylized shadows and colours as panic and violence rise in the characters. The art is never over the top, however; it withdraws from moments of bloodshed, turning away much as the reader wants to.
This is a powerful, important work of reality-based fiction. The book’s subject matter (and its treatment) may cause parents to wonder whether their children should read it. The answer to this question is not only, “Yes, they should,” but also “Yes, they must.”