Thursday, June 25, 2015

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin


Remembrance is a thoughtful and deeply touching novel that brings home the realities of war and the tragedy of the First World War, considered the war to end all wars.

It is 1915 and war has been raging now for over a year. Fifteen year old Charlotte Armstrong-Barnes lives at Stratharden House just outside the village of Stratharden in Scotland. Against her mother's wishes, Caroline has been volunteering at the Cottage Hospital. Her mother wants her to organize charity functions but Charlotte wants to train as a nurse, an occupation her mother thinks is not respectable.  Charlotte's brother, twenty-two year old Francis, has just returned home from college and unlike most Englishmen, is not eager to enlist. In fact, he is deeply troubled by the war. He tells Charlotte that the "patriotic drumbeating" is wrong. "Who in their right mind would want to go to war?" said Francis. "Not the ordinary Prussian or Frenchman, I'll wager. What makes a human being want to kill another who has done him no personal harm? Patriotism. The one thing that can unite people. It takes priority over religious differences, or class, or money, or social position." But his mother considers such views disloyal and admonishes him.

The war has meant many changes at Stratharden; most of the servants are now involved in the war effort. Charlotte's governess has joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and their maid, Annie has seen her two boys, Rory and Ewan enlist.

One day Francis and Charlotte decide to walk into the village to get a newspaper. For Charlotte it's a chance to flirt with the son of the shop proprietor, John Malcolm Dundas. John Malcolm's twin sister Maggie doesn't like either Francis or Charlotte. She considers that Charlotte, "Miss High-and-Mighty"  is just "playing" at being a nurse. Charlotte's interest in John Malcolm annoys Maggie, while Francis is "...the dreamy brother, freshly returned from university and full of new ideas, ...to tell others what to do," Francis tells Mr. Dundas that he hopes to take up his sketching seriously. John Malcolm offers to take the milk order up to the farm, allowing him a chance to talk to Charlotte. Deeply attracted to each other, Charlotte suggests they have a picnic on the Bank Holiday and asks John Malcolm to invite his sister. As he suspects, Maggie is not keen to go but does agree. At Stratharden, Charlotte's mother worries about her keeping company with the right kind of people and is unsure the Dundas family meet that criteria. But Francis tells her they are honest and "known for being upright and generous to the less fortunate." On the picnic, Charlotte and John Malcolm realize they have a strong affection for one another.

Soon the war overtakes everyday life; Charlotte spends long hours working in the hospital, and Francis becomes increasingly preoccupied with news about the war. The chauvinistic patriotism of the newspaper headlines contrast starkly with the growing number of dead and the need for more recruits. Francis laments the growing war machine and the determination of his countrymen to be part of the war. To that end, the King's Own Scottish Borderers Regiment sets up camp in the field behind the school in Stratharden, organizing a recruitment drive for more soldiers. John Malcolm and Maggie's younger brother, fourteen year old Alex, becomes enamoured with the soldiers, hanging around the reserve battalion, determined to learn all he can about soldiering. Eventually the Scottish regiment leaves with both John Malcolm and his younger brother Alex expressing the intense desire to enlist when they come of age.

As the war continues on Charlotte considers volunteering at one of the city hospitals considering there are so many wounded. Charlotte and the other nurses know the war is not going well given the large number of casualties, the lack of munitions and the disorganized offensives. Francis tells Maggie and her father that he has read that the Allies are short of munitions and it is this news that leads Maggie to decide to work at the Springbank munitions factory. At first her parents, especially her father, are against the idea but Maggie tells them she wants to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way.

In January 1916, Charlotte leaves Stratharden for Edinburgh to work in the Springbank military hospital. John Malcolm Dundas turned eighteen in November 2015 and enlisted along with his friend Eddie Kane. As for Francis, he continues to be deeply troubled by the war and is strongly against it. People in their village have assumed that his commission has been delayed which is not the case. Francis has not enlisted and Charlotte worries about how this will be perceived. As Charlotte continues to work in the hospital and is now dealing directly with wounded soldiers she begins to wonder if her brother is not correct in his view that this war is particularly wrong.

As Francis frequents the shop, Maggie begins to read the newspapers both from their shop and at work for more information about the war. She is annoyed that her father leaves her out of discussions about politics and the war instead talking to Alex. With Francis, Maggie is able to discuss pacifism, socialism and he doesn't mind if she disagrees with him. John Malcolm goes off to war and shortly after, on February, 1916, the Military Service Act is passed meaning that Francis is called up to serve. However Francis has no intention of serving if he can possibly do so. He goes before the military tribunal but on the advice of his father's cousin, Major Grant, says nothing and gets a temporary exemption. Francis tells Grant that he is not a conscientious objector because he does believe that some wars are just. On his way home, Francis is confronted by two women who hand him a white feather as a sign that he is a coward for not signing up. Maggie is furious, leaving Francis touched that she would defend him.

Meanwhile life goes on in Stratharden. Maggie marvels at the changes taking place in society and both Maggie and Charlotte receive letters from John Malcolm about life on the front lines. Both young women feel a sense of dread and both soon learn that the war is beginning to change their lives forever.

Discussion

Theresa Breslin is an award winning author who writes books for children and young adults. Breslin undertook significant research for her novel, Remembrance, visiting Belgium and France, the Imperial War Museums in London and Edinburgh, and reading regimental histories and biographies as well as consulting newspapers and journals from the First World War era.

As such Remembrance is an extraordinary piece of historical fiction that vividly portrays the Scottish experience during World War I. It is an experience sadly mirrored in Britain, Canada, France and Germany. The novel portrays how people in the United Kingdom viewed World War I, how the conflict impacted life for civilians of all classes in Scotland, France and Belgium and how it changed society in ways that could never have been imagined.

One of the major strengths of this novel is how Breslin uses her characters to effectively inform readers about the attitudes and politics of this era, about how the people were lied to in order that the war would continue on in spite of poor military decisions, a false sense of patriotism and a sickening loss of life. 

Breslin portrays the attitudes toward women in the early 1900's prior to the First World War, through the characters of Charlotte, Maggie, Mrs. Armstrong-Barnes and Maggie's father, Mr. Dundas. Some of these attitudes and beliefs were that women shouldn't be nurses or ride bicycles, that a woman pursuing a career was thought to be selfish, that women needed to take care about who they kept company with in order to make a good marriage, that women were not to be involved in politics or the business of war. Both Charlotte and Maggie have to overcome negative attitudes at home to go out and work in society. Maggie has told her mother that she ought to be able to choose what she wants to do but her mother tells her only the rich can choose what they do and that "the rest of us occupy our set station in life, and you should be grateful to have one that feeds and clothes you."   Charlotte's mother was not comfortable with her daughter going outside the home either and Charlotte had to tell remind her that nursing was now considered a "respectable" profession. Because Francis is not part of the war effort, Charlotte is seen as helping the family's image in that regard.

Breslin effectively uses specific characters to portray opposing viewpoints on the war. For example, John Malcolm and Alexander Dundas portray those who whole-heartedly supported the war effort. When John Malcolm and his younger brother, Alexander watch the parade of the Scottish regiment as they leave Stratharden, John Malcolm says to Charlotte, "Isn't it glorious?" he said, eyes shining."  "I wish I were going now, with the rest of the lads," said John Malcolm. "It's so frustrating to be left at home and not be a part of it all."

Their view is in complete contrast with that of Francis who believes the war to not only be unjust but simply the work of madmen. Francis is a conscientious objector or a "conchie" as Major Grant, a cousin of his father, calls him. In an exchange between Grant and Francis, the latter's opposition is made quite clear.

"This cause is not just," said Francis passionately. "The war should be stopped at once. The vast amounts of money maintaining the army would be better spent at home feeding the poor. It is the same situation in Germany, and the condition of the ordinary Russian people does not bear thinking about. Thousands of young men's lives are being squandered for little gain."
"The conduct of the war is criticized in many places," replied the major, "mostly by those who know nothing of warfare. It is true that mistakes have been made, but we have learned from them."
"Other men pay with their lives for your mistakes," Francis said bitterly, "The carnage sickens me."
"Things are improving," said Major Grant.
"How can a war improve?" said Francis in despair.

It is a view that in 1916 Scotland would have been considered wholly unpatriotic and even treasonous. Francis is a prophetic and tragic character, warning that the war will go on for years and cost millions of lives and inflict terrible suffering. He is all the more tragic because he is forced to enlist simply because he cannot bear the weight of the deaths of so many around him and because of what the war ultimately does to him.His experience is exactly the reality he knew back in Scotland.

Breslin uses Francis's letters to Maggie to illustrate what life was like for soldiers in the trenches. Francis's letters tell what troops experienced in the trenches and the effect the new type of warfare would have on millions of surviving soldiers, many suffering "shell shock" or what would decades later become known as post traumatic stress syndrome. In a letter to Maggie he writes that the men are "half out of their wits with noise or driven  down by fear and cold, poor rations, and no hope of leave this winter...the fact that we have gained little advances this year with a colossal casualty list had caused many to complain.
But some of the punishments seem barbaric -- where a man is tied for hours to the wheel of a wagon, or deprived of food and kept in solitary confinement."

The madness of the entire war becomes more and more evident to Francis and is demonstrated in his letters to Maggie. For example he relates that in an effort to help the men under his command, Francis went to his commanding officer and requested blankets for the men. He was turned down. The men could not be made comfortable in order that they understand they would soon be moving forward. Francis attempts to counter this by reasoning with his CO, "But sir, we have occupied these very same trenches for the last two years. The men cannot have failed to notice this." To which he replied: "Nevertheless." I found myself unable to respond. In the face of such monumental madness, my chin began to shake and I could not articulate a reply."

Breslin also shows that as the war drags on, even supporters begin to turn against it. Maggie joined the war effort making munitions in a factory but as she learns more about the fighting conditions from Francis, as she hears about the wounded, and watches the suffering of families who have lost all their sons or an only son, she begins to change her mind. When she learns the effects the munitions have on the bodies of soldiers from a book Charlotte lends her, Maggie knows she cannot continue to make bombs.She writes to Francis that if people on both sides of the conflict stopped making the bombs, maybe the war would stop. This is in direct opposition to what she's been told - that more bombs will end the war sooner. "My thought is that if the manufacturing of arms for the War ceased, then there would be no more war. I am sure the mothers and sisters of German soldiers would agree. If this happened and production everywhere stopped, then so would the War, and the leaders would be forced to conduct a peace." Francis warns her that such thoughts would be considered treasonous and that he plans to "lose" her letter.

Perhaps the character Alex best illustrates how the romance of war clashes with the reality of battle. When Alex experiences his first attack it is completely different from what he thought. He thought it would be orderly and exciting but was confronted with something totally different.
"Alex had always imagined that being in a battle would be a definite thing. Commanders would lead at the front, and everyone else would know exactly what was happening. He had thought almost that he would be able to watch the action as well as take part. He had not envisaged the mess, the chaos, the running and shouting, the unbearable noise, and the overwhelming awfulness of it. He ...had no awareness of what was actually happening. It was his first experience of an attack, and he hated everything about it. There was no excitement, no joy of marching forward together to defeat the enemy, only a dull tense pain of dreadful anticipation in his gut and then an explosion of gunfire and confusion."

Alex also changes his view of Germans whom he understood committed terrible atrocities on prisoners of war. His primary reason for enlisting is to avenge the death of his brother, John Malcolm. When Alex kills a German soldier in revenge for his brother's death, at first he feels elation. However, he can't kill the second soldier who is boy like himself. As he spends several weeks with the injured German soldier whose name is Kurt, Alex begins to see the humanity in his enemy and realizes that killing won't help him remember John Malcolm. He makes the decision to risk his own life to save Kurt's.

If Francis represents the millions of soldiers who returned from war damaged, Charlotte represents the millions of British and Scottish women from that generation who lost future husbands and who would marry simply because there were not young in the years following the war. Charlotte, Maggie and Annie demonstrate how the war impacted friends, sisters and mothers as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of future husbands, brothers and sons. They are told their men are dying to keep a country free from oppression but at what cost?

There are many, many themes to explore in this novel; the use of child soldiers in World War I, the concept of just war, the effect of patriotism on war and soldiers, the use of media in warfare especially in producing propaganda, and the role of women in war to name a few.

It's a shame this novel is no longer in print and I do hope that it will be offered once again for publication. Remembrance is an amazing novel, well worth having your local library order through inter library loan. Remembrance is one of the best historical fiction novels written for young people about the Great War.

Book Details:

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin
New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf       2002
296 pp.

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