CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 4 . . . . October 13, 2006
The Trenches: Billy Stevens, The Western Front, 1914-1918, was first published in the United Kingdom in 2002. Scholastic has now decided to release the book in Canada as the first of a new series entitled “My Story.” This volume and the companion, My Story: Battle of Britain, suggest the series is aimed at male teenage readers. Both books are presented in paperback format (as opposed to the hardcover “Dear Canada” series), at an affordable price, and are relatively short, simple and action-packed historical fiction novels.
The Trenches is told in first person from the perspective of teenager, Billy Stevens. Billy and his childhood friend, Rob Matthews, enlist in the British Army in 1917. The author, Jim Eldridge, demonstrates the naïve innocence of many young men who marched off to the First World War. The novel’s central characters enlist with the view of war as a game. These young men have not seen much of the world, many having rarely traveled beyond the region in which they were born. “I’ve been all over the place,” Charlie boasts, “Wales, Scotland, Cornwall. I’ve been everywhere.” Hardly.
Because of his experience working as a telegraph operator, Billy is assigned to the Royal Engineers and is posted near Ypres, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting on the Western Front during World War 1. Billy’s assignment to the Engineers is one of the especial strengths of this book in that it allows the reader to gain further insight into the First World War beyond the more well-known perspective of a fighting infantryman. There is plenty of discussion of the horrors of WWI trench warfare, including death, mud, lice, shrapnel, bullets and the threat of mustard gas. Such things, however, are well covered in juvenile literature, so it is refreshing to have these necessary components complemented by having a protagonist who does not carry a gun, but whose responsibility is to lay communication cables throughout the trench system and to repair lines broken during enemy attacks.
Because of the concise and relatively simple nature of the text, this book is an ideal middle school or junior high classroom read aloud for the period leading up to Remembrance Day. Although the protagonists are members of the British Army, the author also speaks glowingly of the Australian and Canadian troops and of the sacrifice and achievements of these forces on the Western Front.
At book’s end, there is a two-page timeline of events of the First World War. There is also a map of the Western Front and eight pages of black-and-white World War 1 photographs. Such supplementary material adds to the educational value of the book.
Without wanting to give too much away, the events surrounding Rob’s fate are particularly interesting and raise all sorts of questions around issues of fear and fearlessness, cowardice and courage. I think that Rob’s experience is perfect fodder for many interesting and important classroom discussions.
This is an enjoyable, moving read, well worth sharing with teenagers looking either for exposure to strong writing or looking for information about the First World War.
Gregory Bryan is a member of the Department of Curriculum Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, MB.
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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.