CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2005
Colleen Heffernan has previously written for early readers, but this is her first novel for young adults.
A Kind of Courage details the adolescent confusion of Hattie Tamblyn, a young Canadian teenager who lives on a farm with her parents and younger brother Johnny during the First World War. Hattie’s elder brother, Will, to whom she is very close, is fighting in France. When her father hires a conscientious objector, David Ross, to help work on the farm, she and her brother, Johnny, feel their father has betrayed Will. As a CO, David is a social pariah called a “conchie,” and he is generally despised and considered a coward.
Over the next few months, Hattie and David develop a chaste romance. Hattie’s confusion develops as she finds herself drawn to the conchie, an act which she considers a betrayal of her brother. She questions the nature of courage, itself, something which once seemed such a simple concept. In addition to the letters Will writes to the family, he also writes regularly to Hattie, beginning with the start of the war. Will’s letters to Hattie are especially honest, and he writes of the horrors of war and of the non-heroic behavior of some of his friends who have been killed. Hattie keeps all of his letters in a special box which is buried in a secret spot on the family property. Johnny has already been beaten up several times because of the rumor that his father is hiring a conchie. Neither he nor Hattie can believe it would happen. When their father admits it outright, they feel he has betrayed their brother Will. Johnny says a nearby farmer has announced he would let his hay rot before hiring a conchie to stack it. Their father replies: “Hugh Hamilton would cut off his nose to spite his face, boy. How do you think Will and all those other boys are going to get fed if we do that?” The fact is, the elder Heffernan needs the help and has no choice.
This novel is, overall, a disappointment because it is so ambitious and fails to live up to its ideas. The setting of the home front during the First World War and the issue of the conscientious objector are imaginative and promising. Setting up the romantic and filial conflict for Hattie between her first love and her hero worship of her big brother is a fine dramatic choice, but the depth of adolescent emotion is never described enough. Hattie’s fondness for David is never characterized with enough desire to make readers care about their relationship, and Hattie’s love of her brother is also cold. This core emotional dilemma never gets off the ground: “She hadn’t realized until he’d gone that he had begun to fill so much of her life. Now every time she opened a closet or walked into a room, it felt as if something were missing.”
The climax focuses on the nature of courage, hence the title. What does the term actually mean? Hattie believes her brother Will is courageous, but not David. Or could both be courageous? What is courageous about David, then? Is she courageous? If she is, how is she courageous? Does courage mean to fight in a war with a gun, as her brother Will does, to stand up to bullies, as her brother Johnny does, to stand up for your beliefs, like David, to be practical, like her father and to hire David despite neighbors’ slurs? Is courage something deeper, something that involves character rather than behaviour? The deeper questions are raised but never answered. While the author devotes her story to these climactic questions, the answers are either glib or completely ignored. Answers are unsophisticated and, therefore, disappointing. The treatment of the “courage” issue is oversimplified. The following dialogue, late in the novel, is intended to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the various meanings of the concept. Hattie is discussing the nature of courage and cowardice with her neighbour, Mrs. Nelson, who has lost her husband John in war. Hattie speaks first of David.
Michael Groberman is a student of Library Studies at the University of B.C. with a special interest in books for young people.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.