CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 5 . . . .October 27, 2006
Christmas in the Trenches.
John McCutcheon. Illustrated by Henri Sørensen.
Atlanta, GA: Peachtree (Distributed in Canada by Fitzhenry & Whiteside), 2006.
32 pp., (includes a CD), cloth, $24.95.
Christmas Truce, 1914-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 1-5 / Ages 6-10.
Review by Valerie Nielsen.
John McCutcheon is a well-known folksinger and musician who has 29 albums to his credit and a long list of honors including five consecutive Grammy nominations. His picture book, Christmas in the Trenches, is based on a song McCutcheon wrote back in 1983. He tells us in an author's note at the end of the volume how that song came to be created:
I first heard about the 1914 Christmas truce from a backstage janitor in a Birmingham Alabama Concert Hall. I was so taken with this woman's story I wrote the entire song "Christmas in the Trenches" during the intermission of my concert that night.
McCutcheon has made no attempt to make his story historically accurate and has invented a main character called Francis Tolliver who hails from Liverpool.
In McCutcheon's version, Francis Tolliver becomes a World War veteran grandfather telling his two young grandchildren the story as he remembers it.
It was 1914. My mates and I had been on the battlefield for many weeks.
We were all so young, just boys, lonely and frightened and trying to be brave.
We all knew that there would be no break in the fighting. We knew we would be spending Christmas in the trenches.
In simple, evocative prose, the narrator tells of that long ago Christmas Eve when German and British soldiers put down their guns, climbed out of their trenches and, for a few short hours, laughed, exchanged gifts and played soccer between the lines on No-Man's Land. The story of this unofficial truce is deeply touching. Perhaps, as McCutcheon suggests, because it illustrates powerful themes, such as (in the words of the song) "On each end of the rifle we're the same" - or that true bravery is being human in the midst of an inhumane situation.
McCutcheon points out in his note on the back pages that wars don't start on battlefields but in people's hearts. His commitment to the cause of peace can be proved by a visit to his website: http://folkmusic.com/f_peace.htm. Although war is a tough topic to discuss with young children, in creating Christmas in the Trenches, the author has made a significant contribution to the resources available for adults who feel it is an important discussion to initiate.
Warm, softly realistic paintings done by Henri Sorenson, an award-winning Danish children's book illustrator, evoke the mood and setting of the story perfectly. In his drawings of the faces of the soldiers, Sorenson does a particularly fine job of depicting the emotions that must have gripped the participants during this miraculous break in the violence.
The book comes with a CD on which McCutcheon reads the story twice (once with and once without a page-turning sound) sings a half German, half English version of "Silent Night" and performs his original song, "Christmas in the Trenches." His gentle, melodious voice is reminiscent of Stan Rogers, and his style is much like that of Eric Bogle's (in his more wistful moments).
Christmas in the Trenches, with its accompanying CD, would make an excellent addition to the library's special collection for use on Remembrance Day. Taking into account the art, the story and the music-all for $24.95-it is a not-to-be-missed treasure.
A retired teacher-librarian, Valerie Nielsen lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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