Two brothers, two stories, one war. David Hill’s new young-adult book My Brother’s War is a very cleverly written story about two New Zealand brothers’ very different views and experiences of World War One. William doesn’t wait to be conscripted; he enlists for the army, ready to fight for Mother England, proud to be doing his “bit against the Hun”. His younger brother Edmund is a conscientious objector to the war, and, when ordered to report for military training, refuses to do so. The book follows the two brothers on their divergent paths that sees them both ending up on the battlefield in France.
English teachers will love this book. It is well written, easily digestible, and has ample scope for class discussions and essay questions.
It’s been many years since I was in a high school classroom but I still vividly remember having to compare and contrast the jingoistic Rupert Brooke (“If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England”) and the traumatised war-weary Wilfred Owen (“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, …My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.”)
David Hill’s book fits neatly and naturally into such discussions. William’s excitement at being off on a great adventure quickly pales when faced with the horrors and realities of war. Edmund’s passionate refusal to follow military orders and be part of a killing machine waivers in the face of the suffering and heroism he witnesses in the trenches. David Hill was a teacher for fourteen years – and it shows. This book would be an excellent addition to the English syllabus.
History teachers, however, may not be quite as enamoured with the book. The story is light on facts and details. I assume, from my own knowledge of WWI, that the brothers are caught up in the Battle of the Somme but there is no mention of place names, dates, or personalities to confirm that. The book’s cover says that “It’s New Zealand, 1914 and the biggest war the world has known has just broken out” but the story mentions, in passing, events at Gallipoli (1915/16) and Edmund is arrested pursuant to the Military Service Act 1916. The letters the brothers write home to their mother are frustratingly undated.
Although I would have appreciated more factual background and historical detail, I concede that may have distracted from the aim of the book which is to tell the story of New Zealanders’ experiences in the war from two opposing perspectives. The book nicely achieves that objective. I’ve read many (adult) books, both fiction and non-fiction, about the world wars and it is rare for the plight of conscientious objectors to be even mentioned, much less dealt with as compassionately as this young-adult book does. My Brother’s War is a very readable, thought-provoking story from one of New Zealand’s best young-adult writers.
Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis
My Brother’s War
by David Hill
Published by Puffin