CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 2. . . .September 12, 2014
Today’s middle school readers may have forgotten [or not even be aware] that heavier-than-air flight began a little more than a century ago, and that the antecedents of today’s sleek jet fighter aircraft were simple homemade wire, wood and cloth contraptions. With 2014 marking the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, aka World War I, author John Wilson introduces readers to a Canadian teenager, Edward Simpson, who was a fighter pilot on the Western Front during WWI. Ironically, Edward was taught how to fly by his immigrant German uncle, Horst, who, through trial and error, built his own quite primitive flying machines in rural Saskatchewan.
From the outset, Edward adored the experience of flight, and, after his first solo flight in his uncle’s plane, he says, “How will I manage until the next I’m able to soar weightless with the birds? At that moment, I realize that I will never be truly content as long as my feet are anchored to the ground. True happiness can only be found in the air above my head.” In many ways, Edward’s feelings about flight echo those expressed by another teenaged fighter pilot, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., in his sonnet, “High Flight”. Readers of Wings of War who are unfamiliar with Magee’s poem should be directed to Linda Granfield’s High Flight: A Story of World War II which not only includes the words to the poem but also provides a biography of this young pilot who died at age 19 in an accidental mid-air collision.
Wings of War is organized chronologically and spans the period from July 1914 to July 1, 1916, the day which saw the virtual annihilation of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Just 15 when the book opens on the eve of the war, Edward had said, “If Canada ever goes to war...I’m going to become a pilot. No marching and fighting for me.” At that time, Canada did not have its own air force, and consequently, for Edward to become a pilot, he needed to join the then fledgling Royal Air Force. Not only did Edward, just 17, have to get himself to England in order to enlist in the RAF, but he also had to hold a pilot’s license to even be considered.
Edward’s time as a fighter pilot in Europe takes up most of book’s length. Recognized as a superior pilot, Edward is assigned to fly a Morane-Saulnier l, aka the Parasol. A monoplane, this fast, nimble aircraft could match the German planes in a dogfight, but it was a very demanding plane to fly. As Edward’s commanding officer explains, “But overdo the controls [of the Parasol] and you’ll be buried in a field before you know what happened.” Wilson cleverly incorporates the war-in-the-trenches aspect of the conflict by having Edward encounter Cecil, a member of the Newfoundland Regiment, as the pair travel by ship to England. As much as the war allows, the two keep in touch by mail and in person. And on July 1, 1916, Edward is flying air cover over the trenches at Beaumont-Hamel as the Newfoundland Regiment goes “over the top”.
The book ends before the war is over, and whether Edward survived the war or not is, therefore, left to the reader’s imagination. By the time the book concludes, Edward has been shot down once, experiencing just a leg wound, and, at another point, has had to crash-land due to engine failure. He has shot down enemy planes and has seen friends die in dogfights and in flying accidents. Occasionally, the text is augmented by some black and white photographs, with most being of period aircraft. An “author’s Note” and a six-page glossary close the book.
Wilson’s Wings of War tells a good story while recreating for readers a sense of what it might have been like for a Canadian teen during this period when the locales of war moved from just the sea and the land to include the air. Readers who enjoy Wings of War could be directed to David Ward’s Fire in the Sky, another volume of historical fiction that deals with a Canadian teen WWI fighter pilot.
Dave Jenkinson, CM’s editor, lives 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.