Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo's latest book is about a sailor who was in the merchant navy during World War II and who suffered a catastrophic injury that changed his life forever. The story is narrated by the grandson who is now in his fifties, remembering how his relationship with his wounded grandfather grows through the years.

As a young child, Michael had nightmares about a man with a twisted face who jumps out of a sinking ship that is on fire. The nightmares always happened before his grandfather's visits at Christmas.These visits were not frequent because his grandfather lived on the Isles of Scilly. Unlike other people, and against his parents warnings, Michael would look at his grandfather. Unlike others who were revolted by what they saw, Michael could see past his grandfather's scars.
"I was never revolted by what I saw. If I had been, I could have looked away easily. I think i was more fascinated that anything else, and horrified too, because I'd been told something of what happened to him in the war. I saw the suffering he had gone through in his deep-blue eyes -- eyes that hardly ever blinked, I noticed."
Although Michael asked his parents about how his grandpa was wounded, they were reluctant to tell him much about what happened or about his grandmother whom he never met. Michael began visiting his grandpa in the Scilly Isles when he was twelve. His grandpa's world was much different from busy, noisy London; he spent his time fishing and reading. As the years went by, in the quiet time spent together Michael forged a strong bond and a deep understanding with his grandpa that led to his learning the truth about what happened during the war and in the years afterwards.


Half a Man is a touching story about a family in desperate need of healing and forgiveness. The story centers on the importance of how we "see" others and of accepting people as they are. The hurt in Michael's family began when his grandmother Annie, was unable to see past her husband's terrible wounds. Grandpa tells Michael that Annie came to see him in hospital but things were different. "Right away I saw she didn't look at me the same, didn't speak to me like I was normal, like the nurses did. She still loved me, I think, but all she saw was a monster man." When he returned home, grandpa found that Annie still would not look at him. This deeply hurt Michael's grandpa and Annie's inability to accept him for who he was after the war, led to deeper problems. This inability to see grandpa was passed onto Annie's daughter - Michael's mother and eventually to Michael's father. They mistakenly believe that looking at grandpa was rude and upsetting to him. The only person able to look was Michael. At first Michael's looks were secret glances. These furtive looks turned into longer stares at grandpa's face and his missing fingers. At first Michael was scared when he looked at his grandpa's face, but as he grew older, the fear disappeared and he came to recognize the suffering. This acceptance leads Michael's grandpa to open up to him about what really happened to him many years ago - something he has never told anyone. Like anyone else, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, grandpa wanted to be seen and accepted.

Michael's grandpa too struggled to accept what happened to him. He admitted to Michael that he drank too much and said things that he shouldn't have, leading Annie to leave him. He tells Michael, "I don't blame her, not anymore. No one wants a monster for a husband. No one wants half a man, and that's what I was, Michael, half a man. That's what I still am."

Therefore, Half a Man is also a story which explores the lasting impact war has on those directly involved and on their families - often into the generations that follow. Morpurgo's gentle story-telling conveys the sense of loss experienced by grandpa's family when he returns home so terribly wounded. As grandpa struggled to recover from his catastrophic wounds he discovered the one thing he desired most - his family, taken from him. His beloved wife, Annie, who could have been a source of comfort and healing, was unable to look at him. Their struggles to cope with the aftermath of the war led to Annie abandoning him, taking their little girl who was Michael's mother, with her. The result was a family completely broken: Michael's grandpa was consumed by hate and Michael's own mother grew up angry at her mother for taking her away from her dad.

It is left up to Michael to bring about his grandpa's wish for the family to reconcile - specifically his wife and daughter. This happens at grandpa's funeral.

Michael's grandpa mentions that it was Dr. McIndoe who put him back together in the hospital. "It was him that did it, put us back together, and I'm not talking about the operations. He was a magician in the operating room, all right. But it's what he did afterward for us. He made us feel right again inside, like we mattered, like we weren't monster men."

Dr. Archibald McIndoe was in fact a real person. At the time of World War II, there were only four plastic surgeons in Britain and Dr. McIndoe was one of those. Dr. McIndoe was stationed at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead (where Michael's grandpa was treated). There he founded the Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery to treat mainly RAF causalities of World War II. Dr. McIndoe developed new ways to treat the horrific burns suffered by RAF pilots and championed the rehabilitation and reintegration of these terribly disfigured men back into society.

In 1941 he formed the Guinea Pig Club which consisted mainly of recovering RAF patients. McIndoe believed that the disfigured airmen should be fully reintegrated into society at a time when many who saw these men in public were horrified and demanded they remain hidden.  McIndoe died young, at age 59 in 1960, but his legacy lives on in the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation which works to develop new ways to treat burns and soft tissue injuries. Morpurgo's Half a Man is dedicated to Eric Pearce, "one of the very last of McIndoe's 'Guinea Pigs.' "

You can read more about the amazing Sir Archibald McIndoe on the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation website.

Half a Man is a story simply told, beautifully illustrated by Gemma O'Callaghan's prints.

Book Details:

Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press   2005
53 pp.

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