Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My Friend The Enemy by Dan Smith

My Friend The Enemy is a well written piece of historical fiction that captures the reality of war for both soldiers and civilians while showing the humanity of the enemy from a young boy's perspective.

It is a bright sunny summer day in Northumberland, England when twelve year old Peter Dixon hears the air raid sirens go off in his village and hears "the angry buzz of German bombers filling the sky." Out in woods checking his snares, he begins running towards the village where he knows his Mam will be worried about him. Peter turns just in time to see a bomber plummeting towards him in Mr. Bennett's potato field. The explosion of the German plane blows Peter off his feet and just as he begins to black out, he sees a white parachute falling from the sky. Peter's Mam arrives first, then children from the village race over the hill towards the crash site followed by men belonging to the Home Guard. Then the soldiers who had taken over Bennett Hall and the farm soon arrive. Peter is checked out by Dr. Jacobs who finds he has nothing more than a few scratches.

Mr. Bennett who owns the estate and Hawthorne Lodge where Peter and his family live, arrives to survey the damage. Peter doesn't like Mr. Bennett because he seems overly interested in his Mam. Peter's dad is the gamekeeper on the Bennett estate raising pheasants for Mr. Bennett. Both Peter's dad and Mr. Bennett saw action in Dunkirk, but while Mr. Bennett remained at home, Peter's dad was sent over to Africa to fight the Germans. Mr. Bennett convinces Mam to allow Peter to stay and watch the fireman put out the flames from the plane while he escorts her home.

One of the boys from the village, Tom Chambers,  tells the lieutenant that he saw a parachute and this is confirmed by another boy, Alan Parsons as well as Peter. Sergeant Wilkes tells the children that they shouldn't worry because they will soon catch the German airman and they brag about shooting him when they find him.

At the crash site Peter meets someone he's never seen before - a girl dressed in boys clothes. The girl whose name is Kim, is from Newcastle and has been sent into the country to be safe from the German bombing of the city. Kim tells Peter that the German plane is a Heinkel that likely had as many as five airman in it. Kim's brother, Josh, is in the RAF while her father is a doctor at a hospital in Newcastle. Also at the crash site is fifteen year old Trevor Ridley, who enjoys bullying others, particularly Peter. But when he makes suggestive remarks about Peter's mother and Mr. Bennett in front of the other children, Kim stands up to him.

Kim and Peter make plans to return later that night to the crash site to try to locate souvenirs. They meet at 10pm but witness a group of three boys, including Trevor and his buddies being caught and sent home.They do manage to sneak past the guards, to the wreck and retrieve a few souvenirs including a gun. But a bigger discovery awaits them in the woods near the plane. Running into the woods to avoid discovery, Kim and Peter come upon the wounded German airman.

Based on what they have heard the adults say about killing the "Jerry" when they find him, Kim and Peter decide to hide the German airman rather than turn him in. Their decision is based on the belief that if Kim's brother or Peter's father were found by someone overseas they would hope their family member would be helped. They take the German soldier to the shed area where Peter's dad kept the pheasants for Mr. Bennett but instead of hiding him in the shed they find a large, overgrown area where he will be completely hidden.

Both Kim and Peter realize the German airman is young, afraid and injured. The next day they manage to bring him water and a bit of food, but it's obvious he needs his wounds tended to, a change of clothing and some way to relieve himself. Peter tells the German his name and learns the soldier's name is Erik. At the mention of a doctor, the German becomes upset and insists that they do not take him to the doctor. Kim cleans the bad cut on his face, wraps his wounded arm and they bring him what little food they can scavenge from their homes.  Erik thanks Kim for helping him. When they return a day later Kim discovers that Erik's ankle is either broken or badly sprained. Using wood from one of the pheasant cages, they make a splint for him.

The German airman is not anything like the posters up in the village. He is young, sad, weary and most of all, thankful towards Kim and Peter. Meanwhile Trevor Ridley continues to bully Peter and warns him he knows he's up to something.  Eventually, Trevor and his friends confront Peter and Kim in the woods, setting in motion a series of events that have serious consequences for all.

My Friend The Enemy is a very well written novel that explores the concept of enemy and propaganda during wartime. It is common during wars between countries to make assumptions about the people on the opposite side of a conflict. During the First World War, British and American propaganda demonized the German soldier (usually referred to as Huns) and the German people, while the Nazi's immense propaganda machine was used during the Second World War against the Jewish people. In Peter's village the adults repeatedly espouse the view that they must kill the German because he would kill them first.

Throughout My Friend The Enemy, Peter's view of Germans comes to change, despite the fact that his father has been taken away from him to fight overseas as a result of Germany. Meeting a German soldier puts a human face on the enemy for Kim and Peter. Peter recognizes as much.

;"All those Germans we heard about on the wireless were different. They were not men, they were faceless, helmeted and armed, marching across places I knew the names of but had never seen. France, Norway, Africa. They were airplanes dogfighting over the English channel; they were bombers casting a shadow over our cities. They were the enemy.
Our German was different. He was a real person. He was here, he had a face, and he was in trouble."

Even after a few visits to the injured German soldier, Peter begins to have trouble reconciling the pictures on the war posters of Germans with the young German soldier before him.

"On some of the posters, the Germans looked like they had no faces, just half-closed eyes looking at us from the shadow beneath their helmets. Or they were dark monsters, sighting along the barrels of their rifles. On one of them, the enemy was a mustached cross between Hitler and the devil -- his red face topped with horns that stuck out from his side-parted black hair. But as I watched him drink, I realized the man we'd brought into my secret place wouldn't have stood out if he'd been waiting in the queue at the grocer's."

Kim expresses what Peter is thinking when she says, "He's not much of a German, is he?"..."You've seen the posters. They always look different. Like their monsters or somethin'." They both agree that their German looks nothing like the posters, more like them and not different at all. And looking at him reminds Kim of her brother, Josh, and Peter of his da'. Now that they can put a face to the enemy, a young man who is scared, has a name and a family, Peter and Kim have a hard time believing what the adults around them are saying. Even though they are told by adults if they find the German they must turn him in, Peter and his friend display the moral courage not to when they believe that he will be killed.

Smith does a brilliant job of seamlessly incorporating facts about daily life in the English countryside during World War II and portraying the effects of war on Peter and his family and those around them. There is the loss of his da' at a time when a young boy needs him most, the privation of not having enough to eat or the basic necessities of life and of course the terror of being bombed.

My Friend The Enemy succeeds as historical fiction because the author establishes a realistic setting in north east England and populates his story with historically accurate characters and situations. While the major focus in Peter's life at this time is the German soldier, life during wartime goes on. Peter has to deal with the village bully, forms a new friendship with a girl that turns out to last a lifetime, and he has to deal with what appears to be a blossoming friendship between his mother and Mr. Bennett, leaving Peter feeling like she is possibly being unfaithful to his dad.

The novel has a wonderful epilogue which tells what happened to Peter and his mother, to Kim and also to Erik who writes a letter to Peter at the end detailing his life and thanking him for befriending him.The cover is quite well done although I actually like this cover better. A map showing Peter's location within England and relative to Norway and Germany would have been welcome. Overall a truly appealing novel on many levels.

This novel is highly recommended for young readers interested in World War II history and for those looking for a novel with a male point of view. I look forward to reading and reviewing another of Dan Smith's novels, My Brother's Secret. You can visit Dan at his website Dan Smith

Book Details:
My Friend The Enemy by Dan Smith
New York: Chicken House, an imprint of Scholastic    2014
279 pp.

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