24 October 2014
PRIVATE PEACEFUL by Michael Morpurgo
Earlier this year we marked the centenary of the start of The First World War. Centenaries are things we often celebrate but there was little, if anything, to celebrate about WW1. Other than its ending perhaps, which may explain why I decided to wait until now before choosing it as the subject of my book reviews for November. Sunday the 9th is Remembrance Day and with Book Talk due on the 10th it seemed appropriate. The first of my two selections is Michael Morpurgo’s short novel, PRIVATE PEACEFUL.
I must be equally as careful concerning my choice of words about the book as I am about the centenary. The First World War was a traumatic event and to be critical of the part we played in it, and particularly that of the common soldier, is to risk causing offence. No-one wants to challenge the traditionally held view that every common soldier was a hero, and certainly not Mr Morpurgo. His Private Peaceful (or rather both of them, as they are brothers) adheres rigidly to that stereotype, which makes objective criticism of the book difficult to separate from criticism of its protagonists. I have no wish to offend and this is not the place for me to question that tradition, but on the other hand I would not want to give you a false impression of the book. So let me be honest and say what I truly feel rather than lavish praise on it simply because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
This is not a sophisticated book, either in style, language or content. The writing put me in mind of Ben Elton’s TWO BROTHERS, a book of which I was heavily critical, and it was not because of the associative nature of the title. I accused his characters of continuing to be childish, even when grown-up, and there’s an element of that here. The difference is that I read Elton’s book from the perspective of an adult and I wanted more from it than it produced, whereas Morpurgo writes for children. He’s published by HarperCollins Childrens Books and it’s as well to remind oneself of that before starting off on it. That doesn’t mean to say his book can’t be enjoyed by adults - J.K.Rowling showed us how it’s possible to have a foot in both camps - but as a ‘grown-up’ you should adjust your expectations accordingly. And since I left childhood behind some years ago and I’m not in the habit of reviewing children’s books, that makes assessing this one all the more difficult.
The story is as equally unsophisticated as the language.
As young Thomas Peaceful looks back over his childhood from the battlefields of the First World War, his memories are full of family life deep in the countryside. But the clock is ticking, and every moment Tommo spends remembering how things used to be, means another moment closer to something which will change his life forever.
We are not breaking new ground here, although as a tour through what we have come to recognize as the standard elements of a soldier’s journey on the Western Front in WW1, little is left out. We visit the trenches, experience gas attacks and foot rot, suffer the unwanted attentions of a vicious Sergeant Major, a sniper and the fright of ‘whizzbangs’ while an unfeeling Colonel lurks in the background at home. But we enjoy the letters from our family and the compassion of a kindly officer (he dies – but didn’t all the good men?) so nothing is missed. It’s almost like an exhibition of artefacts in literary form and contains most of what I would expect to find at The Castle Museum in York.
I’ve seen the film of WAR HORSE although I haven’t read the book but the message, I imagine, is much the same (although without quite the same level of emotional content perhaps) ie. personal heroism is born out of such adversity. But this is a kind of Boys Own heroism and I was reminded of the Rolf Harris late sixties hit TWO LITTLE BOYS where the sugar content was very similar. But let’s not underestimate the power of these offerings – irrespective of the artist, TWO LITTLE BOYS is still fondly remembered today and WAR HORSE has elevated itself into a tremendous worldwide phenomenon. Could the same happen to PRIVATE PEACEFUL?
In its current form, the two Private Peacefuls of the book might seem like cardboard cut-outs to adults but to children, I suspect they really are heroes. And for those who are of an age when they come to read about the First World War for the first time, this book serves as a great introduction. If I had children aged 10,11 or 12 I would certainly encourage them to read it as I’m sure they’d find it extremely educational in the factual sense. Later in life, they may find the emotional content simplistic and look for further development of character. And so if I had children aged 15,16 or 17 I’d probably encourage them to read BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulks which is the subject of my next review. Let’s see if that delves a bit deeper.
Footnote : I don’t want to move on and leave you with the impression that I’m incapable of learning something from a children’s book. The postscript at the end provided me with something of which I was unaware and which will stay with me long after I’ve finished reading. I shan’t tell you what it is as this would be a ‘spoiler’ but it does take the message further and onto another plane. Quite shocking really. NED