________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 1 . . . . August 29, 2008

cover War Brothers.

Sharon McKay.
Toronto, ON: Puffin Canada, 2008.
197 pp., hardcover, $20.00.
ISBN 978-0-670-06784-8.

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Dave Jenkinson.

**** /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected and Unpublished Proofs.


“There is a convoy of government soldiers coming our way.” Lizard snapped his cellphone shut and rammed it in his pocket. The phone was a badge of authority, proof that he was in command. “Who will volunteer to fight?”

Once again, hands shot up. Jacob, Paul, and Norman just sat on their haunches, secure in the knowledge that they would be passed over.

“You - do you fight today?” Lizard looked down at the three and grinned.

Startled, Jacob and Paul leapt up. Yes! Food, they wanted food.

Lizard laughed and nodded. “Give them pangas,” he yelled.

Both boys took the long knives. Norman looked on. He was not given a panga.

Preparation for battle began. The soldiers knelt down, facing east. Lizard retrieved a damaged prayer book from a pocket.


Egocentrically, many Canadian and American adolescents may assume that adolescents living elsewhere in the world experience lives similar to theirs. McKay’s War Brothers powerfully contradicts such a naive assumption. Set in northern Uganda in 2002, the novel focuses on five boys and a girl whose lives become horrifically intertwined through their being unwillingly swept up in one of Africa’s longest running internal conflicts. In 1987, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel self-proclaimed Christian guerrilla army, began an armed rebellion against the Ugandan government. Led by Joseph Kony, who claims to be the "spokesperson" of God, the LRA has abducted some 60,000 children from their villages and homes with the children then being used as soldiers or slaves. Because of the numerous human rights violations committed by the LRA, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four of his deputy leaders in 2005, with their crimes including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the enlisting of children as combatants.

      Although McKay divides War Brothers into 25 chapters, its contents fall naturally into three sections. The first six chapters effectively establish the geographic and social setting while introducing the five juvenile males, with 14-year-old Jacob being the book’s central character. Three of the boys, Jacob, Tony and Paul, already know each other because they have previously attended George Jones Seminary for Boys, a Catholic boarding school some distance from Gulu, the city of residence for Jacob, the son of a wealthy family, and Tony, who lives in the community’s slums but attends the school on scholarship. Paul is from Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. Oteka, 15, who lives in a displacement camp, is someone Jacob initially meets briefly at a church in Gulu, and, in an act of charity, Jacob gives Oteka money intended for the collection plate. A tutor at George Jones Seminary for Boys assigns Jacob, Tony and Paul to befriend a new boy, Norman, who is ostensibly 12 but turns out to be only 10. This portion of the story concludes with the four schoolmates bedding down in their locked dorm room which contains 40 beds.

      At two a.m., the dorm’s residents are awakened by gunshots, and Jacob much later learns that the school’s guards had fled with the LRA’s arrival. One of Jacob’s first observations is that most of the LRA soldiers are children/adolescents and that their commander, Opiro, is only in his mid-twenties. The entire dorm is taken captive, and the quartet’s three month captivity by the LRA begins. When broken ribs cause Adam, one of the students, to be unable to maintain the pace of the forced march, Opiro selects six students, including Tony, to club Adam to death. Tony, who aspires to be a priest, initially refuses, but faced with having his arm amputated by a panga or machete, Tony strikes the first blow.

      Life with the LRA, which is constantly on the move to avoid government forces, is filled with rules that have harsh, often fatal, consequences if broken, with a core rule being, “Only soldiers eat. If you want to eat, you will join us. This is your choice.” Because Tony has killed, he is considered a soldier and given a weapon, but the other three school boys become slaves, their function being to carry the LRA’s supplies. The trio’s meagre food consists of whatever they can scrounge from nature. Jacob finds that Oteka is now also an unwilling part of the LRA, but, while Oteka wears the uniform of a soldier, he actually functions as a cook. Oteka, having remembered Jacob’s kindness, surreptitiously assists Jacob, and through him Norman and Paul, by providing them with survival tips. The book’s ongoing antagonist, an especially cruel teen known as Lizard, serves as Opiro’s lieutenant. The revelation of Lizard’s pre-LRA identity comes as a surprise near the book’s conclusion.

      While many girls had also been kidnapped and had become soldiers, slaves, or “wives” for soldiers, only one girl, Hannah, plays a major role in the novel. Captured at some point prior to the attack on the school, Hannah had tried to escape but had been recaptured. As an object lesson to others who might be considering flight, the LRA cut off her ears, with this disfigurement making her unsuitable as a wife but leaving her still able to function as a slave. As the novel progresses, Jacob includes Hannah among his family of “war brothers.”

      After Joseph Kony visits this portion of his army, Oteka informs Jacob that the only reason why the students from George Jones Seminary for Boys haven’t suffered more fatal harm is that, unknown to them, they have been used as bargaining chips. In exchange for guns, the LRA will free the students. However, while a deal had been struck with the students’ parents, the Ugandan government would not permit its implementation, and so the students’ lives are now at immediate risk.

      In Chapters 18-22, McKay creates an exciting escape scenario as Jacob, Paul and Norman, accompanied by Oteka and Hannah, flee through the nighttime jungle where they must not only evade LRA pursuers but also the jungle’s wildlife. Jacob had not invited Tony to join them in their escape because he had correctly concluded that Tony’s loyalty had passed to the LRA. While it is Tony who alerts the LRA to the group’s escape, he does eventually join them before the group reaches safety.

      Now, in most books, the “rescue” would signal a happy ending, but the happenings in War Brothers mirror the reality of what happened to the “returnees,” those children/adolescents who were rescued or escaped from the LRA. Because of the potential emotional damage caused by the atrocities the children have seen or in which they have participated, they were sent to reintegration centres for a number of weeks. Even upon their release, there was no guarantee that their parents or communities would accept them back.

      In a postscript chapter, titled “Gulu, Uganda, 2009,” Jacob updates readers on what has happened to the sextet since their days in the relocation centre, and, as in real life, what Jacob shares is a mixture of happiness and sadness. Other closing features include a four page glossary as well as McKay’s “Afterword” in which she ultimately challenges the books’ readers to make a difference in what is occurring in Uganda. As a practical first step, students can visit the website of GuluWalk, an organization which is supporting the abandoned children of northern Uganda and an organization with which McKay is sharing the book’s proceeds.

      For those unsure of their geographic knowledge of Africa, McKay does provide a map which precedes the “Contents” pages.

      Though War Brothers does deal with some “tough” content, especially when the six adolescents are the LRA’s captives, McKay does not treat the events in any exploitive way. No doubt many Canadian middle schoolers have met similar scenes in books about the Holocaust, but it easy for them to think of such terrible happenings as simply belonging to the past. War Brothers speaks to the present!

Highly Recommended.

Dave Jenkinson, CM ’s editor, lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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