Book Reviews: Boys at War
by Barry Denenberg
On Enemy Soil: The Journal of James Edmond Pease
by Jim Murphy
The good and gentle folks at Scholastic, the world’s foremost publisher of books for young people, would never come out and say it (perhaps they don’t even allow themselves to think it), but their attractive ongoing series of paperback reprints of short historical novels featuring young male heroes is predicated on a fairly simple demographic truth: boys tend to be hyperactive morons who need to be essentially tricked into reading. The reasons for this might be disappointingly straightforward (right around the time of life when recreational reading becomes more a matter of volition than compulsion, the male body is also experiencing first a seep and then a tsunami of testosterone, an unbelievably powerful hormone that makes concentration not only difficult but contemptible; the relatively few young men who ever bother to overcome this hormone’s effects need years of practice to do it), but the social ramifications are clear to any teacher: most boys and young men would rather sit and stare at a wall than pick up a book and read.
The books are reprints chosen with some care and repackaged with eye-catching cover illustrations by Steve Scott. The young heroes on these covers aren’t clean or glamorous; they’re a little dirty, a little dishevelled, and you can easily sense the fear just underneath their anger. The covers announce that each book takes the form of the wartime journal of each main character – these are the journals of our young heroes, their raw first-hand experiences, not the more formal stuff of historical fiction that would trigger a teen boy’s boredom-antennae. Barry Denenberg, for instance, in his A True Patriot, sets his young hero William Thomas Emerson down in pre-Revolution Boston, working at a tavern where some of the Sons of Liberty gather to talk about freedom and sedition. Denenberg is simple and effective when setting his stage:
Boston is big. There are finely dressed people everywhere you look and the narrow, winding streets are noisy and crowded with traffic. Drivers of the ox-drawn wagons shout and crack their whips. Iron-tired wheels clank loudly on the cobblestones. Carts and chaises race down the twisted alleys and you have to keep a sharp watch while you dodge across.
And as William becomes more involved with the cause, the cause becomes more tense and heated, as Denenberg illustrates with many period-style posters and broadsheets, but mainly through his clear, vivid prose:
There are also reports of skirmishes near Concord Bridge. The British have suffered grave casualties and have been forced to retreat back to Boston. They have become like wild beasts and are retaliating by killing every living thing they come across – chickens, hogs, cattle – and by setting fire to the houses in their path, murdering all those within – women and children included.
Likewise Jim Murphy’s sharp, often funny On Enemy Soil, featuring rootless teenager James Edmond Pease’s haphazard diary entries recording both the tedium of life in a Union regiment and also the high drama:
“Look, Sgt.,” Boswell – who was closest to me – shouted, pointing to the clearing. I glanced around and saw a line of butternut uniforms break from cover and begin running across that open space toward our line. Then I heard the sound – a steady wave of it, like the scream of 1000 wounded animals gone crazy with pain. I’d heard it before, but every time they let out their Reb Yell, I have to admit it chills me to the bone.
The series also features Into No Man’s Land, Ellen Emerson White’s moving and surprisingly stark novel of Boston native Patrick Seamus Flaherty’s harrowing experiences at Khe Sahn during the Vietnam War, and We Were Heroes, Newbery-winning novelist Walter Dean Myers’ story of American boy Scott Pendleton Collins’ impetuous shipping-out to England and subsequent deployment to Omaha Beach on D-Day. Both White and Myers, like Murphy and Denenberg, punctuate their slim stories with plenty of action, lots of dialogue, and frequent allowances for the power of boredom on the teenage boy’s mind. And the historical research involved is uniformly excellent.
Scholastic has done a fine job with this entire series, and their motives can’t be faulted. The rest is up to the boys themselves, and if these fascinating, vigorous books are instead gobbled up by their sisters instead, well, they’re missing out on a good deal of fun.