Brave Soldier tells the story of a young Canadian man, Frank, who when he hears that Canada has declared war on Germany, is pushed into enlisting in the army by his older friend, Michael. Michael tells Frank it will be easy and the war will be over by Christmas. Frank enlists because he doesn't want anyone to think he's a coward.
Sent overseas to Britain by October, Frank feels afraid despite the jokes that Michael makes about the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm. During the winter and spring, Frank and his fellow soldiers are sent to training camp.
Eventually they are sent over to France where they march to the front. At the front Frank finds deep trenches filled with mud that face the German's across a broad stretch of barren land known as No Man's Land. Eventually Frank and Michael are told they will be attacking the German's the following morning. Frank wonders about the German soldiers whose trenches are so close he can hear them talking. Don't they have families and homes waiting for them in Germany? After shelling the German lines, Frank and his fellow soldier's climb out of their trenches to attack. But for Frank the war is soon over.
Nicolas Bebon's Brave Soldier is an honest portrayal of the expectations young men in 1914 faced about going to war and the fear many experienced. Bebon writes, "Frank didn't know anything about the war, or about Germans. He enlisted in the army because he didn't want anyone to think he was a coward." Frank's reaction was typical of many young men confronted with war; they don't want to fight and often they have no idea why they are at war. When the soldiers are on their transport across the Atlantic, his friend Michael jokes about the Kaiser. "Frank had to laugh, but inside he felt a little afraid."
Society's treatment of those who enlist has thankfully changed somewhat since the beginning of the 20th century when men were pressured to enlist and those who did not were ostracized. In Britain, men were given white feathers as a symbol of cowardice if they did not sign up and deserters, many of whom were suffering from post-traumatic stress where executed. Bebon doesn't get into all this detail but he does honestly show that Frank was afraid and not convinced about why he was fighting. He also shows Frank wondering about the men he's fighting against, realizing that they are just like him.
This picture book is for older children who may want to learn about World War I and have an interest in soldiers but who don't want a lot of text. There is a short note titled The First World War at the beginning of the book which explains briefly how the war began, who fought who, and that it effected much of the later events in the 20th century.
Nicolas Debon is an author-illustrator who was born in France and who as a child wandered through forests that were once the battlefields of World War I. Debon's illustrations were done in acrylics on cold-pressed watercolor paper.
A Brave Soldier by Nicolas Debon
Toronto: Groundwood Books 2002
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