Saturday, October 19, 2013

Kid Soldier by Jennifer Maruno

Fifteen year old Richard lives with his widowed mother in a dilapidated home in the Stoney Creek area. He's still in school but since they badly need money and Richard covets the bike in the window of Cupola's Bike Shop, he sets out to find work. Eventually his goal is to travel the world but first he wants that bike. It is 1939, and Canada is in the throes of the depression with many men unable to find work.

Richard, whose father died when he was young, is an enterprising young man, who is willing to work hard. Despite his much younger friend, Tommy's reservations about strange Mr. Vogel, Richard goes to work for Vogel helping him harvest peaches on his farm.

From there he finds work helping the town baker, Mr. Black make his deliveries. Richard soon befriends the Black family with his hard work and willingness to help. It turns out that Mr. Black is a veteran of the First World War.  Black worked in the signal corps and he encourages Richard to sign up for the army training camp he will be attending. He peaks Richard's interest by telling him about learning wireless telegraphy, and how this might be his way to getting into the Navy to travel the world.
Richard comes to see the demonstrations and finds himself pushed into attending the camp.

Richard is able to enroll in the camp, despite the fact that he's underaged. And when he complete the camp he become determined to enlist some day. That time comes sooner than later when World War II breaks out. Richard enlists at Camp Niagara and is sent first to Kingston and then onto England via the Empress of Britain where he begins training. From this point on we follow Richard in England and the eventual discovery that he is too young to serve.

This novel is a quiet retelling of a young teen who enlists at the start of World War II so that he can experience travel and adventure. Although Maruno's story is an important one, the bland cover and a narrative that has little action will likely not engage young readers. A book's cover should be an invitation to read, but the cover of Kid Soldier does nothing of the sort.

Richard's experiences are similar to those of my own father who was 19 in 1939 and who enlisted along with his two brothers, was sent to Kingston and spent the next four years training in England. My own father who was old enough, landed on the beaches of Normandy, two weeks after the invasion and was part of both the liberating and occupying army. He also was in the signal corps.

Richard Fuller is a truly honorable character who has a keen sense of duty and is not quick to form an opinion about those he doesn't know. When Tommy speaks badly of Mr. Vogel, suggesting he is strange for crying, Richard decides to put off an opinion. When Vogel offers him a chance to work, despite Tommy's reservations and refusal, Richard accepts, deciding he will see for himself what the farmer is like. Richard eventually learns the reason for Mr. Vogel's tears, suggesting that we can never truly know what burdens another person carries.

Although Richard doesn't seem to have a good relationship with his mother, Maruno's narrative suggests that she too is like Vogel with many burdens. Since the death of his father, Richard's mother has struggled to survive; her life is filled with endless work. Richard's dream of the bike in the store window is soon forgotten as he signs over some of his army to go back home. This is yet another example of his caring and responsible attitude towards others, but especially his mother.

This novel will likely appeal to boys who enjoy war stories told in a slow paced narrative style. Kid Soldier provides an glimpse into the life of young Canadian men just before the start of the second World War that is both informative and detailed.

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