Friday, 8 March 2013

Article: 'Storying War: A Capsule Overview'

Myers, Mitzi, 'Storying War: A Capsule Overview', The Lion and the Unicorn 24.3 (2000) 327-336

What counts as a representation of war? What kinds of war stories have found favor over time? What trends emerge, and what genres and themes appear worldwide? War stories encompass varied fictional genres and perspectives, as well as quasi-fictional autobiographical accounts; settings include not just the actual war zone but also the home front (as in World War II's many hiding out stories); war's aftermath at home or conflicts of the future are related topics. Tales featuring armed conflict, usually from an anti-war perspective, as in "Things by Their Right Names" and "The Price of a Victory" in Anna Letitia Barbauld and John Aikin's Evenings at Home (1792-96), have contributed to juvenile literature since its late-eighteenth-century takeoff. The American Civil War starred in many children's magazines; adventure tales, usually nationalistic, were popular in the later nineteenth century, an approach that also resurfaces during the earlier years of twentieth-century wars. Although war stories are sometimes categorized as pure adventure or combat zone tales, they are inherently didactic: they inculcate patriotic moral values or, more often, question the morality of war. Most are variants on the oldest adult genre borrowed by children, the Robinson Crusoe survival story, often directly alluded to within texts, as in Uri Orlev, The Island on Bird Street (1981, trans. Hillel Halkin, 1984). Although tales may be overtly aimed at boys or girls, war stories are read across genders, and war activities frequently allow fictional protagonists (like real-life girl readers) participation in heroic activities, from nursing under fire to escaping enemy pursuers.
Captain W. E. Johns's Biggles books are set in both twentieth-century wars and are still avidly read. Johns remarks of his flying hero that he may seem to give young readers merely the excitement they want, but "I teach . . . under a camouflage." British girls' series stories, as in Elinor Brent-Dyer's The Chalet School in Exile (1940) and Dorlita Fairlie Bruce's Dimsie Carries On (1946), feature war too. Evacuation and spy-catching [End Page 327] were big war themes in British tales, as in national propaganda. World War I fiction still comes out, as in Michael Morpurgo, War Horse (1990), but World War II generates the most literature, although the United States has much Revolutionary and Civil War fiction. Vietnam and later wars begin to attract writers, but earlier conflicts still generate fine work, as in Mollie Hunter's tale of Robert the Bruce, The King's Swift Rider (1998), or the very different recent spate of young adult books concerning the early twentieth-century Armenian massacre, the attempted extermination of a whole people that Hitler explicitly cited as precedent, useful evidence that genocide could be perpetrated successfully because so few protested or remembered.
The platitudes that war books fascinate young readers because they provide risk-free real events more exciting than any make-believe, yet appealingly predictable because the audience knows who "won"; that they evade serious moral issues or reduce these to the good guys versus the bad, thus serving as conduits for national ideologies; or that they are usually escapist (combat books from "over there" for boys) or gendered (domestic contribution stories for girls on the home front) need scotching. Current proliferation in war writing for the young coincides with accelerating late-twentieth-century violence and reflects adult preoccupations with human evil: all forms of moral, psychological, and material destruction; past and present genocides, from the Holocaust to more recent "ethnic cleansings"; the ever-present possibility of nuclear disaster. Adult social history, cultural studies, and postmodern/postcolonial literary theory--all much concerned with redefining what counts as "war" and with exploring how conflicts escalate and how war is represented in history, memory, and words--filter into the expanding and impressive volume of war stories for the young. Not always comfortable or reassuring, many recent publications contrast sharply with previous simpler works in war genres that were in essence familiar forms like school tales or horse stories. (One of the earliest British World War II novels, for example, is Mary Treadgold's 1941 We Couldn't Leave Dinah, the invasion of the Channel Islands in the guise of a pony book peopled by youngsters who help out the Secret Service and even decrypt German military codes.)
Within the exciting and comfortably familiar conventions of quest narratives, war stories move from harrowing escape and survival to a redemptive reestablishment of home, family, and friendship, whether in frigid Siberia, as in Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia (1968); and Tamar Bergman, Along the Tracks (1988, trans. Michael Swirsky 1991); or in the refugee trilogies of Sonia Levitin and [End Page 328] Judith Kerr, whose German-Jewish families came, respectively, to America and England. Reissued as Escape from Warsaw, Ian Serraillier's pathbreaking fact-based tale of The Silver Sword (1956) features a strong heroine among the fleeing children and is early in viewing some Germans sympathetically. Clever children and cross-cultural friendships elude Nazi terror in Claire Huchet Bishop, Twenty and Ten (1952); Doris Orgel, The Devil in Vienna (1978); and Lois Lowry, Number the Stars (1989). The difficulties of growing up German are explored by Barbara Gehrts, Don't Say a Word (1975, trans. Elizabeth B. Crawford, 1986); Ilse Koehn, Mischling, Second Degree: My Childhood in Nazi Germany (1977), the German term alluding to the technically Jewish heroine's camouflage within the Hitler Youth movement; Laura E. Williams, Behind the Bedroom Wall (1996); and Jurgen Herbst, Requiem for a German Past: A Boyhood among the Nazis (1999). Through brilliant time-slip narratives of switched identities, Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic (1988); and Han Nolan's If I Should Die Before I Wake (1994) transport inside the concentration camps, respectively, a modern Jewish girl bored with old woes, "tired of remembering," and a postmodern Neo-Nazi skinhead.
Confusions of national identity and religious affiliation, especially when Jewish youngsters grow up abroad or hide out as Christians, are often notable in refugee tales, as in Johanna Reiss, The Upstairs Room (1972), and its sequel on war's aftermath, The Journey Back (1976); Elisabeth Mace, Brother Enemy (1979); Joan Lingard, Tug of War (1989) and Between Two Worlds (1991); Renée Roth-Hano, Touchwood: A Girlhood in Occupied France (1988); and Anita Lobel, No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War (1998). Returning to a devastated European homeland after the war, strong young people nevertheless locate alternative "relatives" to love in T[amar] Degens, Transport 7-41-R (1974); and Peter Härtling, Crutches (1986, trans. Elizabeth D. Crawford, 1988); or finally get "home," only to discover that their solitary heroism has matured them beyond the adults, as does the astonishingly resilient protagonist in Tatjana Wassiljewa, Hostage to War: A True Story (1992; trans. Anna Trenter from the German trans. of original Russian, 1996). The lone child traversing combat zones has long been a motif of exciting stories that implicitly question war ideologies, from Meindert DeJong, The House of Sixty Fathers (1956), with Tien Pao and his pig wandering China during Japanese occupation (illus. Maurice Sendak) to Tomiko Higa, The Girl with the White Flag (1991, trans. Dorothy Britton), the child behind the famous Army photographs of a youngster amidst battle on Okinawa. [End Page 329]
Perhaps the first entry in the evacuated-British-child World War II genre is P. L. Travers, I Go by Sea, I Go by Land (1941). In a variety of psychologically sophisticated narratives, juvenile evacuees deal with loss, abuse, and transgress class and gender norms, finding alternative homes and families in Canada in Kit Pearson's trilogy about working-class youngsters who must eventually leave the posh new world for home; discovering liberatory love and literacy after maternal maltreatment in Michelle Magorian, Good Night, Mr. Tom (1981), and renegotiating restrictive English gender and class codes after American freedoms in her Going Back (1984); or retrospectively engaging autobiographical guilts and attachments in Nina Bawden, Carrie's War (1973) and Henry (1988). Hardy juveniles rescue grownups from Dunkirk in Jill Paton Walsh, The Dolphin Crossing (1967), or furtively prowl blitzed London in search of love in her Fireweed (1969). Street children rebuild the secret garden amid the bombs and win over genteel adults in Rumer Godden, An Episode of Sparrows (1955); wartime communal solidarity is symbolically enacted through the adventures of Blitzcat (1989), one among many revisitations by Robert Westall of his adventurous youth amid bombs in a port town.
Westall, the dean of British war novelists, features encounters with the "enemy" on the home front in his most familiar war story, The Machine-Gunners (1975), and its sequel, Fathom Five (1979), a spy story entangling the young hero in moral ambiguities. Westall's recurrent lone German and problematic father motifs also characterize perhaps the most often cited American World War II fiction, Bette Greene, The Summer of My German Soldier (1973), and its sequel, Morning Is a Long Time Coming (1978). Greene's Jewish heroine is persecuted by a punitive father and the Arkansas community as well; when she falls in love with a German POW and hides him after his escape, she is sentenced to a reformatory. Westall; Greene; Magorian; Mary Downing Hahn, Stepping on the Cracks (1991) and Following My Own Footsteps (1996); and most recently Carolyn Reeder, Foster's War (1998), link abusive parents and international abuses of power. The parallels between youthful war games at home and bloody combat abroad and the exploration of how war develops and of the human capacity to hate are worked through not only in much Westall, but also in John Malcolm Rae, The Custard Boys (1960); Susan Cooper, Dawn of Fear (1970); and Marion Dane Bauer, Rain of Fire (1983), among others. Boys in modern works typically learn that combat sickens; girls reveal formidable resilience and courage; both frequently show themselves as wiser than their elders, able to rekindle hope. Disenchanted soldiers star in Harry Mazer, The Last Mission [End Page 330] (1979); Walter Dean Myers, Fallen Angels (1988); Cynthia Rylant, I Had Seen Castles (1993); and Robert Cormier, Heroes (1998), the latest in Cormier's trademark positioning of young people within larger cultural contexts dominated by institutionalized violence. Cormier explores the home-front fallout of World War II in Tunes for Bears to Dance To (1992).
New Zealand authors Eve Sutton and Joanna Orwin treat early Maori intertribal warfare. Mid-nineteenth-century New Zealand wars over land and sovereignty inspired Mona Tracy (pro-English), with Anne de Roo and Ron Bacon taking a Maori perspective on war's stupidities and children's plight. Maurice Gee, Jack Lasenby (most notably in The Mangrove Summer, 1988), and Winifred Owen deal with World War I and World War II. Distant combats from the Trojan War to the European children's crusade are featured and reinterpreted by Ken Catran and Michael Joseph. More recent conflict in Bosnia is complexly developed around a Maori protagonist in Kate de Gold, Love, Charlie Mike (1997). The distinguished Australian John Marsden, Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993); and the German Gudrun Pausewang, The Fall-Out (1987, trans. Patricia Crampton, 1994), consider future wars.
Translated continental works have long set a high standard for stark realism, formal experiment, and moral engagement, from Rudolf Frank, No Hero for the Kaiser (1931, trans. Patricia Crampton, 1986) to Max Von der Grün, Howl Like the Wolves: Growing Up in Nazi Germany (trans. Jan van Heurck, 1980), to the remarkable trilogy by Hans Peter Richter, whose three slim volumes vividly miniaturize Nazi triumph and ultimate demoralization, bearing witness against his country's and his own crimes in Friedrich (1961, trans. Edite Kroll, 1970), the emblematic Jewish victim's story related by his "friend," the young German narrator; I Was There (1962; trans. Edite Kroll, 1972), the older author's indictment of misled German youth, himself included; and The Time of the Young Soldiers (1967, trans. Anthea Bell, 1976), in which early on the conscripted youngster watches his amputated arm casually tossed in the garbage. Frank described his first fiction as "an antiwar novel to warn young people"; Hitler imprisoned him in 1933, and his book was publicly burnt, vivid testimony to the public impact of war representation for young readers. Especially noteworthy contenders concerning war trauma include the two disturbed Davids of Anne Holm and Claude Gutman. Holm's fugitive in I Am David or North to Freedom in the United States (1963 as David, trans. L. W. Kingsland, 1965; rpt. 1993) painfully acquires an identity; Gutman's rebellious hero fills The Empty House (1989, trans. Anthea Bell, 1991) by writing his own allusion-packed [End Page 331] story. Gudrun Pausewang, The Final Journey (1992, trans. Patricia Crampton, 1996), winner of the Marsh Award for best translated work of the year, sends her uncomprehending Alice to the gas chambers expecting a cleansing shower, a wake-up call to readers who know what she does not. Appropriately, the best and the most relevant war stories in an increasingly violent world share didacticism with earlier forebears, but they seek, as many authors and illustrators avow, to teach the skills of peace.
Revelatory and riveting, the diverse contemporary genres encompassed by war stories at the twentieth century's close are arguably the most relevant "didactic" forms for young readers who will shape the new millennium's global, multicultural society. Such works ask, like Primo Levi, upon his arrival at Auschwitz, "warum," "why?" Surprisingly often, they translate the notorious sign at the entrance to that camp, arbeit macht frei ("work makes freedom"), in terms of the work of writing, bearing witness in the form of autobiographical or factually grounded fictions, actual journals, diaries, memoirs, letters, poems, and drawings. Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (1952; critical edition 1989; definitive edition with restored passages, trans. Susan Massotty, 1995), is the most famous example. The author also produced an alternative imagined reality, with fables, dreams, a tale personifying her diary as a girl named "Kitty" who is blessed with a "glorious future," and another creating a magical fairy who can dispense happiness for everyone (Tales from the Secret Annex, trans. Ralph Manheim and Michael Mok, 1983). Anne's diary is itself atypical in the hidden child protagonist's relative insulation from brutal Nazi realities (the record ends before the capture and deaths of all but the father) and its normalizing or what one critic calls "Americanization," a packaging of specific anti-Jewish horrors in the palatable universalizing form of identity crisis, sexual awakening, and family tensions. Even Anne's story, now the icon of World-War-II tales and a major source of young people's knowledge about that conflict, barely made it into print just after the war, despite its relatively upbeat tone and emphasis on hope for the future rather than guilt for the past. Because she has come to represent the liberal ideal of individuality, progress, and the right to happiness, Anne is also, paradoxically, widely taught as relevant to recent immigrant students in the United States. (She is the frankly acknowledged model for later young war writers, too, as in Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo, trans. 1994.) In the award-winning Behind the Secret Window: A Memoir of a Hidden Childhood during World War II (1993), Nelly S. Toll, who survived hiding out, as Anne did not, vividly demonstrates the power of words and art to [End Page 332] preserve and heal both the young writer and the young reader. Her little black journal of heartbreak is juxtaposed with exuberant paintings fantasizing school friends, happy families, and bright skies, ending with a Goddess of Freedom, produced just before the Red Army liberated her in 1944.
Current understanding of Anne Frank may, as some critics suggest, downplay mass destruction to celebrate resistance, rebirth, and renewal, as expressed through juvenile autonomy and freedom. Some Holocaust specialists (Lawrence L. Langer, among others) insist that World War II atrocity has no parallels and yields no lessons. Young authors and writers for the young feel otherwise. Most often, they foreground what Nina Bawden calls the more inherently interesting "outside child," the conscripted, the evacuee, the persecuted wanderer or hide-out, the spy-seeker, the refugee, the exile, the immigrant, the orphan. War stories provide paradigmatic initiation or coming of age stories for both sexes and frequently sidestep gender and class codes normative in peacetime. Recent work often transcends patriotic nationalism, introducing multicultural themes and international issues. Shedding innocence and discarding naive notions of what counts as heroism or legitimate authority, protagonists search for alternative values and communities, friends, and surrogate families who typically help them to survive and affirm, despite graphic horrors, that the humane and the spiritual matter and still exist. More than any other juvenile categories, war stories foreground basic questions: what counts as "children's literature" and how does that literature differ from works for an adult audience; what constitutes permissible subject matter and how may horrors like Nazi crematoria and American atomic destruction be represented for young audiences so as to inspire and not paralyze moral action; how can juvenile literature foster humane thinking and global peace when youngsters grow up saturated with media violence. More too, perhaps, than any other genres, war stories embody techniques of "cross-writing" that make permeable the boundaries between "fiction" and "history" and between audiences of children and adults. Specifically addressing a mixed readership, as does Janina Bauman, Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl's Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond, 1939-1945 (1986), a quest for identity in Nazi Poland, war stories are often dual audience works, especially in the almost innumerable lost childhoods and teen survival and rescuer narratives, typified in Aranka Siegal's prize-winning two volumes on a Hungarian girl's survival and United States immigration, Upon the Head of the Goat (1981); and Grace in the Wilderness (1985). Documents from youngsters whose words alone outlived the Holocaust furnish both adult [End Page 333] historians and teenagers drawn to horror stories. Moving accounts from the youngest survivors, such as Inge Auerbacher, I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust (1986), and Milton J. Nieuwsma, ed., Kinderlager: An Oral History of Young Holocaust Survivors (1998), are accessible for quite young readers.
War works also transgress expected norms in appropriating picture books and cartoons for appalling contents and in transferring moral authority and decision making from adults to younger protagonists, children wiser than their elders. The young heroine of Roberto Innocenti and Christophe Gallaz, Rose Blanche (1985), feeds concentration-camp inmates and gets shot herself at the very moment of German defeat, her improbable but inspiring domestic heroism in stark contrast to the hyper-realistic illustrations of city life under Nazi rule. When the narrative changes from first person to third, readers know that she is dead, but, the war over, the last illustration affirms the coming of spring and peace. Toshi Maruki explains why Hiroshima No Pika (The Flash of Hiroshima, 1980) impressionistically represents naked, burned, or vaporized bodies from the viewpoint of seven-year-old Mii: "It is very difficult to tell young people about something very bad that happened, in the hope that their knowing will help keep it from happening again." Less terrifying but equally educative, Eleanor Coerr commemorates the dead and disfigured of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (1977) and Meiko and the Fifth Treasure (1993); depositing the life-preserving cranes is now an annual child's celebration in Hiroshima Peace Park. For adolescents and their elders, Art Spiegelman, Maus, A Survivor's Tale, I, My Father Bleeds History; II, And Here My Troubles Began (1986, 1991), creates via the comic strip a multi-audience animal fable of Auschwitz and after, updating the ancient convention with Jewish mice, Nazi cats, and American dogfaces. Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows (1982), predicts nuclear holocaust via the destruction of Hilda and Jimmy Bloggs, a nice, elderly provincial British couple, in another highly sophisticated comic book replete with multilayered ironies. Directed at much younger readers, Dr. Seuss, The Butter Battle Book (1984), harks back to Swift's mortal combat in Lilliput with the Yooks and Zooks escalating their weaponry over which side of bread the butter goes on. As the open ending makes clear when the child questions Grandpa whether he will drop the "Big-Boy Boomeroo," it is up to the future generation to decide: "We will see. . . ."
Outgrowing the generic staples of combat novel, spy story, or boyish adventure familiar from old favorites such as G. A. Henty and the Biggles books, recent war stories thus experiment with representational [End Page 334] form as well as didactic content. They increasingly feature strong heroines instead of soldiers and often confront the moral dilemmas posed by more modern wars, with no simplistic accounts of good guys versus bad and no pat definitions of what constitutes heroism. Indeed, the convention of the patriotic youth off to help his country through battle-front combat abroad, returning home to applause, is becoming as suspect in juvenile fiction as it has been in adult fiction since Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, two of every three in Europe, a million-and-a-half of them children; five million Gentiles also were systematically killed. Casualties in World War II were 44 percent civilian; the percentage of civilians and noncombatants in later wars has risen to over 90 percent, a large proportion of whom are very young. For many writers, the most important lessons for humane living evolve through storying war and death. Whether picture books deliver their messages visually for older as well as younger readers, or pioneering realistic analysts of war, violence, moral responsibility, and heroism code their work in symbolic analogues as does, most notably, Robert Cormier, today's best war-storying vigorously negates Peter Pan's gush, "To die would be an awfully big adventure."
Further reading, including comprehensive bibliographies: Cadogan, Mary, and Patricia Craig, Women and Children First: The Fiction of Two World Wars (1978); Danks, Carol, and Leatrice B. Rabinsky, ed., Teaching for a Tolerant World, Grades 9-12: Essays and Resources (1999); Holsinger, M. Paul, The Ways of War: The Era of World War II in Children's and Young Adult Fiction (1995); Johannessen, Larry R., Illumination Rounds: Teaching the Literature of the Vietnam War (1992); Kennemer, Phyllis K., Using Literature to Teach Middle Grades about War (1993); Lenz, Millicent, Nuclear Age Literature for Youth: The Quest for a Life-Affirming Ethic (1990); Marten, James, ed., Lessons of War: The Civil War in Children's Magazines (1998); Overstreet, Deborah Wilson, Unencumbered by History: The Vietnam Experience in Young Adult Fiction (1998); Robertson, Judith P., ed., Teaching for a Tolerant World, Grades K-6: Essays and Resources (1999); Stephens, Elaine C., and Jean E. Brown, Learning about the Civil War: Literature and Other Resources for Young People (1998); Stephens, Elaine C., Jean E. Brown, and Janet E. Rubin, Learning about the Holocaust: Literature and Other Resources for Young People (1995); Sullivan, Edward T., The Holocaust in Literature for Youth: A Guide and Resource Book (1999); Taylor, Desmond, The Juvenile Novels of World War II (1994); U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, D.C., n.d.;, [End Page 335] Teaching about the Holocaust; Walter, Virginia A., War and Peace Literature for Young Adults: A Resource Guide to Significant Issues (1993); Werner, Emmy E., Reluctant Witnesses: Children's Voices from the Civil War (1998); Werner, Emmy E., Through the Eyes of Innocents: Children Witness World War II (2000); Whitehead, Winifred, Old Lies Revisited: Young Readers and the Literature of War and Violence (1991). The World Wide Web has numerous sites focusing on wars, including individual Japanese internment camps featuring growing up narratives not otherwise available, documents on Vietnam and other wars, and elaborate hypertext for many conflicts and individual battles, some of them created by youngsters themselves and class projects, etc. Especially valuable are the NCTE guides (Danks and Rabinsky and Robertson), as both volumes situate racism, violence, and war topics within a rich milieu of related current areas and are both strong on resources, including websites and teaching strategies.

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