Soldier Doll opens in the year 2007 with fifteen year old Elizabeth Bryant who, along with her mother and father has just moved from Vancouver to Toronto. Her father, an engineer in the Canadian Armed Forces, will be working out of CFB Trenton before he ships out to Afghanistan.
While searching for a birthday gift for her dad at a community garage sale, Elizabeth finds a small wooden doll.The doll is very unusual with a baby face, blond hair, blue eyes and a painted soldiers uniform. Sensing her dad, who enjoys collecting junk, might like this, Elizabeth purchases the doll. When she gives it to her father on his birthday, her mother seems to think the doll might be special, but can't remember why.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth is understandably having trouble adjusting to life in Toronto. She misses her friends and is lonely. With less than a week before the start of school, her mother suggests that she go out to meet people. Elizabeth does this one evening and soon discovers a used bookstore called Read It Again Sam. At the bookstore Elizabeth meets the young store clerk, Evan, and Boris, the store owner's large black and white rabbit. She discovers the store has a copy of Margaret Merriweather's novel, Autumn Evening, one of her favourite books. Evan tells Elizabeth about a Merriweather's poetry and asks if she studied the Soldier Doll in school. Stunned at the coincidence of a poem about a soldier doll and her having found just such a doll at the garage sale, Elizabeth learns from Evan that the poem is about a real soldier doll that went missing during a war and which people have been searching for many years. Evan locates a copy of the poem and buys it for Elizabeth and asks her to friend him on facebook.
Convinced that the soldier doll is an important antique, Elizabeth mentions the soldier doll poem to her parents and how the doll has been missing for years. Her father contacts Dr. Madeleine McLeod, an archeologist and twentieth century historian. They go to meet Dr. McLeod who tells them that the doll has a German World War I military uniform rather than a British one. She agrees to run tests. Elizabeth decides to see if Margaret Merriweather is still alive. Although she will be very very old, it might be possible for her to verify if this is in fact, her soldier doll.
Interwoven with Elizabeth's efforts to uncover the origin and history of the doll are the stories of how the doll came to be and how it was passed from one person to the next throughout the 20th century.
Readers will meet Meg Merriweather who fell in love with Ned Roberts in Devon, England in 1918. When Ned is killed in action in Germanyduring World War I, the doll passes to Franz Roth, a Jewish German soldier. In 1939, Franz gives the doll to his daughter, Hanna, and explains how he came into possession of it.That night, which turns out to be the infamous Kristallnacht, Hanna returns the doll to her father, as he goes to rescue a neighbour. He never returns, instead being deported to a work camp. In 1944, Franz, still in a camp, Terezin (also known as Theresienstadt) in Czechoslovakia, and still in possession of the doll, gives it to Eva Goodman in the hopes that it will bring her good luck and that she will survive. In Da Nang, Vietnam, Mike Stepanek has a soldier doll in his pocket. Mike is a squad leader for his platoon, which is searching the jungle for Viet Cong. His mother, who got the doll from the nuns at an orphanage in Prague before she fled Czechoslovakia, gave the soldier doll to him as a memento. While searching a Vietnamese village, Mike is horrified by the effects of the war on the villagers and when a small girl begs for food, he impulsively hands her the soldier doll. Years later, in 2001 in Toronto Canada, a young university student, Alex Cameron has the doll his mother, Thuy, a Vietnamese refugee was given by an American soldier. Alex, an idealistic university student who wants to fight for freedom, enlists against his parents wishes and goes to Afghanistan. In a moment of anger, he tosses the doll into the street in Toronto.
Eventually, when tragedy strikes Elizabeth's family, the soldier doll brings comfort to her, by connecting her with someone from its past who helps her to come to an important realization about life.
Soldier Doll is excellent novel marred by an unimaginative cover that does nothing to draw in its intended audience of teen readers. Which is truly unfortunate. Gold who has degrees in psychology, law and public health, has written an engaging novel which provides readers with a brief snapshot of war throughout the 20th century.
Soldier Doll explores the long reaching effects of war on families regardless of country or era through the narratives of Meg, Franz, Eva, Mike and Alex, all survivors of war. Elizabeth and her mother too are survivors of war, having lost their father and husband. After learning her father has been killed in Afghanistan, Elizabeth doesn't care anymore about the soldier doll, but Mike Stepanek tells Elizabeth, "It's hard to be the one who lives" and Elizabeth comes to realize that this is what many people experience in war, the guilt of having survived. They must learn to go on living, not only for those around them, but also to prove the instigators of war wrong. They must have hope. In Elizabeth's life, the unborn child her mother carries, is a symbol of the future and of this hope.
This theme of hope is also present earlier in the novel in the narrative of Eva who after losing her mother and father and her best friend Ilona to deportation to a death camp, does not want to sing when the Red Cross comes to Terezin. But Adam, one of the children initially set against them cooperating with the Nazi's to put on this concert, tells her,
"It has to do with hope, I think. If we sing, we have hope, still. And if we have hope, we might survive."Eva does survive. As does her son, Mike Stepanek. As does the little girl, Thuy, who was given the soldier doll by Mike. The soldier doll also survives and represents all those people who survive war.
Another aspect of war the Soldier Doll considers is the complicated factors that are involved in enlisting to fight in a war. In Meg's opening narrative, Ned doesn't want to go to war but it is the honourable thing to do. He will be judged a coward if he doesn't enlist, despite the fact that it is obvious to him and Meg that he is still not fully recovered from his pneumonia. In Mike's narrative,
Soldier Doll is well written and cohesive despite the many narratives.It would have been nice to have a map at the end of the novel chronicling all the locations the soldier doll traveled.
The Soldier Doll by Jennifer Gold
Toronto: SecondStoryPress 2014