CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 16 . . . . March 30, 2007
Edward Bathe is a 16-year-old from Saskatchewan who lies about his age and volunteers to fight in World War I to avenge the death of his brother, despite the opposition of his depressed widower father. After training, he is sent to England to break wild horses, and there he falls in love with nurse Emily. Itching for action and revenge, he joins the yeomanry, and his unit is finally sent to the front - the Palestine front against the Turkish. There, at one point literally in the shadow of the ruins of Megiddo - also known as Armageddon - Edward learns first hand the cruelty and tragedy of war. Friends, Emily, and his beloved horse Buke die, and he witnesses enemy soldiers being shot instead of taken prisoner. Surviving the heat, the killing, and his own self-doubt, he makes a solitary surprise attack on a small enemy machine-gun crew, killing three of four men. Discovering the fourth cowering and pleading, he mistakes the offer of chocolate for a weapon and shoots the young man. Wounded himself, he carries the dying soldier to the British doctor, insisting they both be saved. Never knowing the fate of the young German, Edward returns home just as the war ends, haunted and full of doubt that only his father, his home, and his minister can allay.
Based loosely on Slade's grandfather's experience in the Lincolnshire Yeomanry, this novel is cruelly real, soberly blunt, and, as another reviewer put it, "as unsentimental as a bullet." Slade writes the way a smart young soldier would - with direct observation, keen self-awareness, and in a staccato rhythm. No scene is glossed over, yet no moment is trivialized by over-exposure. The pace is quick, the fighting scenes action-packed, the dialogue natural and occasionally poignant. Although short on description, small details are given meaning; although short on introspection, Edward's comments are sharp, often wry. The historical backdrop is communicated through event, character, and place - perfectly suited to the transience of a place affected by war.
The lack of overt drama may make some readers tune out in the first half of the book - the portion set during training - but the building of tension and of character becomes stronger as the book progresses, culminating in the final battle scene where Edward discovers that he cannot enjoy killing as some of his mates do, that he prefers life even for the enemy.
Although not an easy read, Megiddo's Shadow may just work for reluctant readers, especially boys. It certainly provides a fascinating look at men and war, seen through the eyes of someone who is really still a boy.
Todd Kyle, a former President of the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians, is currently a library branch manager in Mississauga, ON.
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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.