Almost as long as humans have been writing, they have been writing about war. Factual or fictional, it was a reality for almost everyone. Storytelling bridged the gap for those who had experienced it, and those who hadn’t, allowing recognition, reflection and remembrance. Oral storytelling traditions and epic poems were the forerunners, not shying away from the brutality and sacrifice. With Remembrance Day coming up, Booka focuses the blog this week on the connection between war and writing. You could write a whole book about this subject, so we’ll keep it concise: first a look at Oswestry’s most famous poet, then at ways books can bring hope in conflict, particularly for our younger readers.
“Red lips are not so red, / As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.”
These words were written in 1917 by one of Oswestry’s most famous sons. Born in 1893 to a family clinging to the edge of refined respectability, Wilfred Owen would likely have passed out his life in genteel obscurity, perhaps in the Church, or as a school master, had it not been for the outbreak of the First World War.
There are other important World War One poets: Siegfried Sassoon, with whom Owen shared a close friendship, Rupert Graves, Rupert Brookes and John McCrae. Most people would recognise their lines: “In Flanders Fields the poppies grow…” by McCrae or Brookes’ “If I should die, think only this of me…” Both Brookes and McCrae also died in 1915 and 1918 respectively, but Wilfred Owen’s sheer poetic honesty (“I am the enemy you killed, my friend…), anger (“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”) and brutal depictions of the realities of war (“One of us got the knock-out, blown to chops. / T’other was hurt like, losin’ both ‘is props.”) ensures this son of Oswestry’s place as one of the greatest and best-loved war poets.
Poetry is not for everyone, but if you are inclined to some literary commemoration, here are ten of the most important Wilfred Owen poems with a short section of each:
- Greater Love – “rolling and rolling there / Where God seems not to care…”
- Dulce et Decorum est – “as under a green sea, I saw him drowning…”
- The Chances – “Over the top to-morrer; boys, we’re for it./ First wave we are, first ruddy wave;”
- Mental Cases – “These are the men whose minds the Dead have ravished.”
- Futility – “Move him into the sun – / Gently its touch awoke him once…”
- Disabled – “He’s lost his colour very far from here, / Poured it down shell holes…”
- Anthem for a Doomed Youth – “in their eyes / Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.”
- Miners – “But they will not dream of us poor lads / Lost in the ground.”
- The Sentry – “I try not to remember these things now…”
- Strange Meeting – “I mean the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled.”
For the very best fictionalised depiction of Wilfred Owen’s final years, look no further than Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy (1991-5). Barker won acclaim last year for The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of the ancient war of Troy, through the eyes of the women caught up in the slaughter. Regeneration (the first book of the trilogy) focuses on the period of time that Wilfred Owen spent with Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, while being treated for ‘shell shock’. It’s brutal, beautiful and quite brilliant, as are the second and third books in the series, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, featuring Wilfred Owen’s death, which won the Booker Prize. Reading these novels is quite the act of remembrance in itself.
War Books for Children
It can seem an awfully big subject, but introducing children to the ideas of war through the medium of storytelling, is one of the best ways to do it. The one to one time, with opportunities to pause, question, adapt and comfort, makes this one of the best approaches for any difficult subject. Depending on their age, children will often have touched on this in school, but don’t just leave it up to the curriculum. You know your child best, take control and choose the right time for them. You may like to start with these.
The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb (2018). A story simply told but with a powerful message. What if you had to leave your home because a war broke out in your country and you couldn’t go back? What if you couldn’t take anything with you? What if, when you finally arrived in a new country, people didn’t want you there? Tackling issues facing the thousands of child refugees in this country with a beautiful eye for detail, this book rises to the challenge with courage.
Recently released in paperback, marking thirty years since the demolition of the Berlin Wall is Tom Clohosy-Cole’s Wall (2014). Told from the point of view of a young boy in East Berlin, the stark light and dark imagery conveys his sense of being trapped, with family members on the other side. Although the story is fictional, the experiences are truthful. The Berlin Wall may have come down, but there are other barriers around the world dividing people which could also be explored.
Slightly older readers (9-12) will find Grenade by Alan Gratz (2018) a gripping and thought provoking read. In 1945 the world is at war. The story focuses on two young men on opposites sides of the fight. Hideki is Japanese and has just been drafted into the army. Ray, a young marine has just landed for his first ever battle. As combat rages, each begins to question their role in the war, and when they are brought together by a chance meeting, they have to make a choice that might change both their lives forever.
Finally, readers of all ages will find inspiration and hope in the pages of Migrations by Shaun Tan (2019). More than fifty artists from all over the globe have come together to create postcard images of birds, symbolising a world where there are no borders. The postcards are in their original language, with English translations underneath. Twenty-five different countries are featured, with many familiar and less familiar birds covering the pages. Hopeful and powerful, this book is one you will regularly revisit.
Words are incredibly important, with the power to heal, forgive and inspire hope. War and the suffering that comes with it is never easy to talk about, but reading and sharing experiences is one small way to acknowledge the realities of the past and look to the future with greater hope. Thank you for reading and hope to see you for a November visit soon.