________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 21 . . . . February 10, 2017


Innocent Heroes: Stories of Animals in the First World War.

Sigmund Brouwer.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2017.
198 pp., hardcover & epub, $21.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-10191-846-3 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-10191-847-0 (epub).

Subject Headings:
Animals-War use-Juvenile fiction.
Animals-War use-Anecdotes-Juvenile literature.
World War, 1914-1918-Canada-Juvenile fiction.
World War, 1914-1918-Canada-Juvenile literature.
Human-animal relationships-Juvenile fiction.
Human-animal relationships-Anecdotes-Juvenile literature.

Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15.

Review by Todd Kyle.

*** /4



Then Thomas said, "Some stories are best not told. And some stories are hard to understand if you did not grow up where I did."

Jake heard a lot of pain in that statement. Not shot-with-a-bullet pain. But long-carried pain.

"Thomas," he said, "by now, you and I are brothers. Even if we don't make it through the night, I want you to know that."

Thomas again did not reply. Distant shots and distant shouts broke the silence.

Then Thomas spoke in a quiet voice. "The only reason I studied chess was because someday, if I had the chance, I wanted to beat them at their game. The priests treated us like animals, and I wanted to show them we are not."

Innocent Heroes tells the stories of several animals who proved themselves heroes during the First World War, from the point of view of small group of soldiers in the fictional Storming Normans platoon in the trenches of France. Little Abigail, a carrier pigeon, saves an entire platoon trapped behind enemy lines by delivering a message about their location, despite being injured by gunfire. Coal Dust, a horse, drags a soldier out of a mudslide. Louise, a pack mule, stubbornly refuses to carry her load of shells where she is told, knowing that the path crosses unexploded ammunition. Against this backdrop unfolds the story of a Cree platoon member, Thomas Northstar, whose struggle for recognition and civil rights continues after the war when his platoon mates team up to force the Canadian government to replace the despotic Indian agent on his reserve.

      Innocent Heroes is a book that is difficult to categorize. The fictionalized stories of the animals and the nonfiction interludes explaining the historical context that they are inspired by, are accessible and not particularly challenging to those in the middle grades. Indeed, the publisher classifies it for ages 9-12. But the complex relationship of Northstar and his fellow soldiers, their stilted, almost ethereal conversation, and the depiction of the colonial politics of Canadian war leadership, place this book in young adult territory. The book is written in a staccato, jerky, almost scattershot style that, although the sentences are short, might put off younger readers. In some cases, the connection between the fictional and the real-life animals in the post-chapters is quite tenuous, even meandering, and the accompanying photographs are too small and contain no explaining captions to make them fully understandable. And yet, the style of the most touching passages is beautiful and literary in a way that a 14- or 15-year-old might really appreciate.

      In the dedication, the author thanks a school class from Saskatchewan for helping him with the depiction of Northstar, and it is clear that much research and thought went into creating this fully-formed intelligent, wry, forthright, and courageous character. The oblique references to residential schools and to the contemptuous and patronizing political policies towards Indigenous people make this a work that goes well beyond cuddly tales of bravery, making the title almost misleading. And yet, for all its complexity, the relatively tidy end in which Northstar is freed from the bonds of the Indian "pass system" by his well-connected war buddies comes across as almost a fantasy.

      Is Innocent Heroes an exploration of the bonds between soldiers and beasts, coupled with an introduction to Indigenous issues for young readers? Or does it use animal heroes as mere backdrop for a spirited re-imagining of the deserved place in history of Indigenous veterans? Whatever it is, it is clear that the most important "innocent heroes" aren't necessarily the animals. A fascinating, if confusing, read.

Highly Recommended.

Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and Past-President of the Ontario Library Association.

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

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.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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