________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 3 . . . . September 29, 2006

cover

Where Soldiers Lie.

John Wilson.
Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 2006.
221 pp., cloth, $15.95.
ISBN 1-55263-790-5.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Gregory Bryan.

**½ /4

excerpt:

Across the open ground, hundreds of figures were rising from trenches and racing out from behind walls. Most were still dressed in the remnants of British army uniforms, but many wore traditional native dress. Some paused to fire muskets while others rushed forward, brandishing ugly, curved swords–tulwars Jack remembered vaguely--that glittered in the sunlight.

It looked terrifying, but Tommy had taught Jack enough for him to recognize that the attack was ill-prepared and badly coordinated. The men were running in a loose mass, with no coherent leadership and they were not supported by a cavalry charge. Several rounds of grapeshot and volleys of musket fire left dozens of bloody heaps on the ground and sent the remainder scurrying back for shelter.

 
In Where Soldiers Lie, John Wilson recounts the bloody events surrounding the 21-day siege of Cawnpore (now Kanpur), after the mutiny of sections of the Indian Army during India's 1857 war for independence. The novel's central figures—16-year-old Jack O'Hara and General Wheeler's beautiful daughter, Alice—struggle to cope with the brutality surrounding them in the country they both love.

     Jack, a half-caste Indian, and Alice, a quarter Indian, resist the rigidity of the Indian caste system and the equally inflexible social structure of the ruling British. “We can never be fully accepted by either culture,” Alice observes, feeling forces both of attraction to, and repulsion from, the elements comprising her mixed heritage.

     Wilson's story is action-packed, violent and hardhitting. He has developed strong characters capable of generating feelings of empathy as we follow the hardships they endure throughout the course of the novel. Where the book loses ground, however, is in some distracting dialogue and too many instances of hackneyed and clichéd writing.

     The dialogue most off-putting is that of the character of Jack's friend, the British soldier, Tommy. In creating Tommy, the author has given him a cockney accent intended to reflect his origins as the son of a London fishmonger. It is, however, distracting for the author to then have to explain the accent, including Tommy's use of rhyming slang and his habit of “replacing ‘th' in the middle of a word with ‘ff' or dropping the ‘h' at the beginning of a word.” These explanations are problematic enough but become more so when Tommy only inconsistently adheres to the parameters established by his creator. For instance, on page 92, “bovver” (for bother) and on page 132, “togevver” (for together) are not consistent with the author's explanation. At least adhering to the explanation, but actually even more inconsistent, is the appearance of “nuffink” on page 43 and “nuffing” on page 46 (appropriately replacing ‘th' with ‘ff', but changing the way Tommy said the same word—nothing). As for dropping the “h,” on page 63, Tommy drops the “h” to say “'aven't,” “'ere,” and “'e,” but on the following page, Tommy's speech includes the “h” in “hurry” and “has.” On page 85, Tommy says “had” in one sentence, but follows up with “'ad” in the next sentence. Even worse, on page 72, in the very same sentence, Tommy says “her” and, two words later, it is pronounced as “'er.” It can be difficult to read accents at any time, but such inconsistencies magnify the distraction.

     As for clichés, they appear throughout the novel. Amongst other instances, I was distracted to read of: the man's life that “seeped into the ground” (p. 83); the “island of sanity” represented by Aunt Katherine (p. 88); the “island of stability” that was Jack's horse, Australian (p. 94); Jack's crying until “empty of tears” (p. 94); Jack being “stopped in his tracks” when he first witnessed close combat (p. 124); the “sculpture of sorrow” supposedly represented by Alice and Jack crying in one another's arms (p. 149); and the “blood red sun” that set over the slaughter (p. 192). I also wonder at the word choice when describing the sound of musket balls whizzing overhead with an “annoying whine” (p. 84). On the first day of any siege, I expect that the sound of bullets passing close overhead would be more than just “annoying.” Later, Jack runs for his life under enemy fire and, running “as hard as he could”, Jack feels the scabbed wound in his back “itching annoyingly” (p. 125). Perhaps Wilson could have found a more suitable place to discuss the annoyingly itchy nature of Jack's wound—after all, much of the siege was passed in boredom, waiting for opportunities to either defend or attack, and it seems that an itch would be more annoying at such times than when engaged in a frenzied sprint for survival.

     Some of the writing, therefore, is poorly constructed. As mentioned, however, the book is action-packed and fast-paced. The characters are generally convincing. I find the transformation of Aunt Katherine most interesting and well crafted. Teenagers with an interest in history or warfare may enjoy the read while high school history teachers will find this a worthwhile text for exploration into the issues of colonialism. There is much to like about Where Soldiers Lie, but there are enough instances of careless writing for me to have reservations about my recommendation.


Recommended with reservations.

Gregory Bryan is a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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