Duty Calls (Dunkirk 1)
Private Johnny Hawke joins up at 15, and finds himself in France on the losing side of the early engagements of WWII. His story is told in intimate, platoon-level detail, with an emphasis on realism. Death happens. Mutilation happens. The blood and gore is described in language suitable to make Hawke vomit. Similarly, when Hawke squeezes the trigger, kills his first German, it isn’t allowed to be an impersonal killing. Later he comes across the body, sees the dead man’s waxy face, searches through the pockets to find family pictures. War isn’t all heroism and excitement, either: it is dirty, tired, confused, and arbitrary – and awash with bully-beef and over-sweet tea.
I read this with my 8-year-old, who loved it. For me there appeared to be some problems: the characterization is often wooden, there is an over-emphasis on details of army organisation (companies, battalions etc., and who commands who), and it sometimes juggles history uncomfortably with the more Call of Duty video-game element. My son didn’t feel this. He enjoyed the camaraderie, the sergeant-who-knows-better-than-his-lieutenant, the blindness of a Panzer to men-up-close, the sense that you’re really there, that this could be you, and that war really does have heroism as well as misery. And, actually, he would also adore a video game based on the book!
This is for 12-year-olds and upwards. I’m not certain the formula is quite at its best yet, but it offers a welcome middle ground between Commando magazine and war documentaries. Next up is the Battle of Britain – about which Holland has already written an excellent general account for adults – and our family will be buying it.