Reflections on war and peace
By Yvonne van Lith
Embedded on the Home Front: Where Military and Civilian Lives Converge is an anthology of essays and reflections focusing on the “home front.” It’s hard to separate that expression from war. In the First and Second World Wars, the “home front” was a clear entity and location: if you weren’t on the frontlines, you were on the home front. But during current times of peacekeeping, peacemaking and armed interventions, the notion of home front seems to comprise only those who are in some way directly affected by the military: family and friends of soldiers, returning soldiers or ex-soldiers – an invisible group camouflaged by everyday jobs and activities. Editors Barb Howard and Joan Dixon have compiled insightful essays from 14 writers, including Melanie Murray, Scott Waters, Ryan Flavelle and Chris Turner, in Embedded on the Home Front: Where Military and Civilian Lives Converge. This anthology captures triumphs, incredible fortitude and humour, often in the face of grief, as well as the complicated logic, fears, anger and other everyday realities that are part of home-front life.
In The Force of Things: a Marriage in War and Peace, Alexander Stille follows two families across the 20th century. One is starting in czarist Russia, and the other in the American Midwest. The story takes them across revolution, war, fascism and racial persecution, until they collide at midcentury. Their immediate attraction and tumultuous marriage is part of a much larger story: the mass migration of Jews from fascist-dominated Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. It is a micro-story of that moment of crosspollination that reshaped much of American culture and society. Stille’s book raises questions about self, identity and motivation, using creative and engaging anecdotes taken from the lives of his parents.
And Still Peace Did Not Come: A Memoir of Reconciliation by Agnes Kamara-Umunna is a harrowing account of the nightmare that gripped Liberia under Charles Taylor’s reign of terror in the 1990s and of the country’s attempt to heal itself. Between 2004 and 2007, Kamara-Umunna hosted Straight from the Heart, a phone-in radio program that broadcast the truelife stories of survivors of Liberia’s civil wars (1989-1996, 1999-2003). At the show’s inception, the focus was on the victims. Kamara-Umunna intersperses these “true-life stories” with accounts of her own childhood and experiences in war-torn Liberia. When Liberia followed in South Africa’s footsteps and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she encouraged the boys to participate. Kamara-Umunna’s story is one of hope and redemption.
Reaching the centenary of the Great War, citizens worldwide are reflecting on the history, trauma and losses of a war-torn 20th century. It is in remembering past wars that we are at once confronted with the profound horror and suffering of armed conflict and the increasing elusiveness of peace. In Bearing Witness: Perspectives on War and Peace from the Arts and Humanities, understanding and insight created in the works of musicians, dramatists, poets, painters, photographers and novelists provides a complex view of the ways in which war is waged, witnessed and remembered. A compelling and informative collection, Bearing Witness sheds new light on the impact of war and the power of suffering, heroism and memory to expose the human roots of violence and compassion.
But it is The End of War by John Horgan that I leave you with. In this book it is argued that war is caused by cultural beliefs rather than a genetic disposition and that peace is a choice that human beings can make, presenting true accounts of both concepts throughout history and possible solutions to the problem.
Yvonne van Lith is coordinator of the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library.
War remembered in picture books
by Sue Townley
This month the Ottawa Public Library Sunnyside Branch has brought together a collection of books of remembrance of wars past and present, chosen from among the library’s special picture books collection. Many already know that the public library has an extensive collection of picture books for the preschool set. However, did you know that we also have a wonderful collection of picture books that are especially collected with the older reader in mind? The Special Picture Book Collection is filled with picture books that capture the emotions and imaginations of older children and adults alike.
The Enemy is a clever picture book by Davide Cali with understated illustrations by Serge Bloch. This book ponders the essence and logic of war from the point of view of a lone soldier sitting in his foxhole within sight of the enemy. After exploring the pointlessness of war and his own fears of being alone he becomes tired of sitting and waiting in his hole. He waits until the moon wanes; then, putting on a disguise, he creeps out toward his enemy’s foxhole. There he finds to his surprise that his enemy is more like himself than he had imagined. He wishes that the enemy would do something to end the war, but in the end realizes he must do something to end it himself. The simplicity of the text and illustrations is deceptive. In the end this powerful book is a poignant and thought provoking read that will prompt discussion on war and conflict resolution.
And the Soldiers Sang is a more traditional view of trench warfare from J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley. Set in the midst of the western front in the First World War, the narrator is Owen Davies, a Welsh infantryman. On Christmas Eve, Owen hears a “baritone singing Stille Nacht,” and being an accomplished tenor himself, he responds with “The First Noel.” The two sides join together for a brief Christmas celebration. On Boxing Day, however, the war returns to these beleaguered men. The story concludes in tragedy and starkly memorializes the century-old war.
The Harmonica, written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Ron Mazellan, is an exquisite picture book inspired by the true story of a Holocaust survivor, Henryk Rosmaryn. The narrator is a young boy captured, separated from his parents and taken to a concentration camp. He manages to bring with him the harmonica that his father gave him. The commandant of the camp, who loves Schubert, learns of his talents and orders the boy to play for his pleasure. Filled with self-loathing, the boy is surprised when his playing brings hope to the other prisoners of the camp. While this story is set in the Second World War, the theme is broader and makes a case for the power of music to support and sustain humanity.
Eve Bunting has written an inspiring story based on the true experiences of a Bosnian family forced to flee their country during the civil war. Gleam and Glow is narrated by eight-year-old Viktor, who, along with his family, is forced to leave home just one step ahead of the enemy forces. Strangers pass through Victor’s town on their way to the border and one man leaves his two golden fish with the family, saying, “An extra day or two of life is as important to a fish as it is to us.” A few days later, as Viktor’s family readies to leave, he releases the fish into their pond. After days of walking and weeks of living in a refugee camp, Viktor, his sister and mother are reunited with his father and eventually return home. The land is ravaged by war and their home is destroyed but the fish have survived, even thrived, as they and their offspring fill the pond. This beautifully illustrated book focuses on the impact of war on families and children and on those things that allow people to retain their humanity.
The recent picture book by Linda Granfield, The Road to Afghanistan, follows a soldier home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan with recollections of its scenery and people. Memories of past and present wars mix to honour generations of Canadian soldiers that have served through the years in countries far from home. This book doesn’t press the rightness or wrongness of war but simply reflects on being a Canadian soldier now and through the missions of the 20th century. This is a thoughtful new addition to a difficult subject.
Sue Townley is the Children’s Programming and Public Services Assistant at the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library.