CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 32. . . .April 18, 2014
Soldier Doll, Jennifer Gold’s debut novel, is a work of contemporary realistic fiction with episodic tales of wartime historical fiction mixed in. The novel recounts the summer that 15-year-old Elizabeth Bryant moves from Vancouver to Toronto. At a yard sale, she unearths an old wooden doll that looks like a soldier and decides to buy it for her father’s birthday. Elizabeth is pleased to find a tailor-made gift as her dad, a member of the Canadian Military Engineers, is preparing to ship out to Afghanistan. Shortly after giving the doll to her father, Elizabeth realizes that it might actually be the subject of a famous British poem, and she embarks on a journey of discovery with her parents and new friend, Evan. As the Bryants’ story unfolds, so, too, does the history of the soldier doll, all the way back to when Margaret Merriweather, the doll’s first owner, gives it to her betrothed, Ned. Ned takes it on its first journey, a journey into the trenches during World War I. The doll then travels a path of wartime tragedy and hope, changing hands many times through World War I and II, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.
The captivating story is well-paced and flows naturally from present to past and back again many times over. The transitions serve to both build suspense and engage the reader. Gold has a keen mastery of plotting segues. Shifts from one setting to the next feel entirely appropriate and virtually cinematic. Superb writing and editing combine to create a readily readable, fascinating story. The characters, even those we only meet for a single chapter, are well-developed through the dialogue and action. The reader will feel empathy for the many and varied victims of war encountered through the story’s progression.
While the story may seem fantastic – a handcrafted doll survives for almost a century landing in a Toronto yard sale intact after being discarded – the believability of this novel is one of its strengths. Gold creates an entirely plausible tale. In fact, this reviewer searched for “The Soldier Doll” poem and its author because they seemed so familiar when characters Evan and Elizabeth discuss them in the bookstore. However, multiple database and Google searches reveal both to be entirely fictional. This plausibility is realized in many other plot points throughout the novel as characters struggle with decisions that will lead them through devastating and enlightening wartime situations and circumstances.
The complexities and brutalities of military conflict are also portrayed in a realistic, unflinching light. The novel is well-researched, no easy feat given the multiple theatres of war that are explored. However, instead of focussing solely on the violence and victimization, Gold shines a light on the peripheral and integral decisions that the enlisted, recruited, and drafted all make before they leave for war. Nor does Gold forget the bravery that civilians and prisoners of war embody as they muster the courage needed to continue through devastating loss. As a proponent of critical literacy, this reviewer believes that Gold has developed an amazingly unbiased portrayal of recent wartime tragedies in our civilization. Teachers, librarians, and parents are encouraged to share this timely and inspiring novel with mature children and all young adults as we reflect on the 100th anniversary of World War I. Though Elizabeth and her family do not escape the traumas of war, Gold instills hope for the future, and readers will gain an appreciation for the dedication of those that serve their country in wartime. And, readers will undoubtedly feel a heart-wrenching sympathy for families, civilians, and all those affected by nationalistic aggression.
Beth Maddigan is Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Education Librarian.
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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.