Ten-year-old Johnny eagerly plays at war with the army of nutcracker soldiers his toymaker father whittles for him. He demolishes imaginary foes. But in 1914 Germany looms as the real enemy of Europe, and all too soon Johnny’s father is swept up in the war to end all wars. He proudly enlists with his British countrymen to fight at the front in France. The war, though, is nothing like what any soldier or person at home expected.The letters that arrive from Johnny’s dad reveal the ugly realities of combat — and the soldiers he carves and encloses begin to bear its scars. Still, Johnny adds these soldiers to his armies of Huns, Tommies, and Frenchmen, engaging them in furious fights. But when these games seem to foretell his dad’s real battles, Johnny thinks he possesses godlike powers over his wooden men. He fears he controls his father’s fate, the lives of all the soldiers in no-man’s land, and the outcome of the war itself.
This was one of those rare, wonderful books that you read without knowing anything about.
The idea of the book fascinated me: a toy maker is drafted to the trenches and sends carved soldiers that he sees to his ten year old son, Johnny, back in England. As Johnny collects the toy soldiers and creates an army to fight back the strong nutcracker soldiers that his dad made him before he went, he notices that the battles he makes up in the mud under the beech tree are becoming more like the ones that his dad writes about.
Doesn’t that sound like a brilliant and unique way of telling a story about a boy whose dad is fighting in WW1?
And it really was.
This book had me captivated and I read it within a couple of hours, not realising how much time had passed until I realised that the day had slipped into dusk.
I was riveted by Johnny’s story (I would also like to be best friends with him) and the unlikely friends he makes while he is living in Kent, avoiding the dangers of London.
The only thing that is preventing me from giving this book the full five stars were the letters that Johnny received from his dad.
And I have to admit I’m still not sure I should be so picky.
And I am being picky so please take that into account.
I found it very difficult to believe that a father would write to his ten year old son every minute detail of what happened to him when he went over the top . I understand the necessity of telling children the truth about the horrors of the war, or at least explaining that it isn’t like playing with toy soldiers in your back garden, but there is a difference between telling them the truth and scaring the living daylights out of them!
Surely he would have liked a bit of reassurance that the dad he was already worrying about wasn’t going to die like the men mentioned in the telegrams the postman brings around.
But, like I said, I am being picky because if I ignored the niggling in the back of my mind… the letters were really well executed and, as this is really Johnny’s story in England, allowed the reader to get a sense of what is happening over there. And the soldiers that accompanied these letters, becoming more and more twisted and broken, was a really effective and poignant way of illustrating that war, as the tagline suggests, is no longer a game.
So I don’t mind admitting that I’m the world’s biggest wuss when it comes to anything that resembles a puppet, clown or ventriloquist dummy. And nutcracker men don’t necessarily come under this category but there was definitely something extremely… eerie isn’t the right word… but well yeah eerie about these little guys.
I loved how Mr Lawrence introduced an extremely subtle yet intriguing element of magic within this story. As he states in his author’s note at the end: “There was something about the Great War that inspired the belief in the supernatural”. Whether this was the sightings of apparitions of English archers protecting the soldiers from the Germans on the same ground as they did against the French centuries earlier, ghostly soldiers or the famous case of the Angel of Mons. I thought the mystery behind what was really happening with those wooden soldiers and their influence was in equal measures unnerving and poignant.
Oh and one last thing… that last paragraph?
This review is part of my Poppies and Prose feature. You can find out more about it here.