Wednesday, June 30, 2010

London Calling by Edward Bloor

When his hated All Soul’s Preparatory School in New Jersey is finally let out for summer, Martin Conway, 13, becomes what he calls a basement dweller. Living in the basement bedroom previously occupied first by his manic-depressive uncle and later by his alcoholic father, he only leaves to eat, occasionally to go to the store, and once to attend his grandmother’s funeral. At the funeral, he learns that she has left him the old Philco cathedral style radio that his grandfather used when he was assigned to the US Embassy under Ambassador Joseph Kennedy in London during World War II.

Martin takes the radio home and sets it up by his bed. He tunes it between stations and falls asleep listening to the static and looking at the amber glow of the dial. One night he ‘dreams’ that he is speaking to an 8 year old English boy named Jimmy, who asks Martin “Johnny, will you help me?” He has already spoken to Martin’s grandmother when she was alive, and she had said that Martin would be able to help him.
Martin finds himself somehow transported back to London during the Blitz in 1940. Jimmy is quite a talker and mentions all kinds of everyday things that only a person living then would know. The next day Martin begins looking for information about these things, and, to his surprise, many turn out to be real.

Altogether Martin sees Jimmy three times – always in London and each time Jimmy asks “Johnny, will you help me?” and tells Martin that they are at a point, a critical point. 8 September1940 is the first night of the Blitz and the two boys go to the US Embassy where Martin sees how Jimmy and his father, a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), interact. On 15 September1940, as the Blitz continues and the RAF has its first victory over the Germans, Jimmy and Martin again go to the Embassy and witness some questionable behavior among the generals working there and a woman named Daisy Traynor. Finally, on 29 December1940, the night that St. Paul’s Cathedral escaped total destruction despite the incredible fire bombing in London, Martin realizes why Jimmy needs his help.

London Calling is a novel about critical points, as Jimmy keeps reminding Martin. A critical point is that point in time when a crucial decision must be made; in London Calling, each visit provides Martin with information that turns out to be factually correct but historically inaccurate, prompting Martin to asks his sister Margaret so many years later
“Who decides what ‘the real history of a time’ is?”
“Martin, that is a brilliant question. And the simple answer is – the winners decide…” (page 109)

Jimmy (symbolically, a point of time from the past) guides Martin (symbolically, a point of time from the present) through his process of uncovering real truths, and he begins by calling Martin by his real first name – John. It is a significant beginning – Martin was named John Martin Conway - John after his “un-heroic” alcoholic father, Martin after his “hero” grandfather General Mehan.

I liked this novel once I got into it, particularly the main character, but there is just so much going on that it is almost impossible to give a simple bare bones summary of it. It is a classic coming of age story that includes time travel, Catholicism, mysticism, bullying, and father/son relationships. Bloor brings in more historical information than most novelists who write about World War II for young readers, so it would be a field day for a social studies teacher to use.

There are also a lot of parallels and coincidences in the story, for example, the endurance of both the old cathedral radio and St. Paul’s Cathedral during the war, the continued appearance of Rembrandt’s painting of Abraham and Isaac and father and son struggles, and Jimmy’s question “Will you help me? and Britain asking the US for help to fight the Nazis and Ambassador Kennedy's unwillingness to support war aid to Britain. This is viewed as America turning its back on the UK and is symbolized by Kennedy leaving London during the bombings. Sometimes there are a few too many coincidences or the action is a little too far fetched, but I don’t mind that in a fantasy novel. The majority of the story takes place in the present, with three chapters in the past, but these chapters are just packed with action and information. Interestingly enough, I thought, as I read the book, that Edward Bloor was a British writer, and was surprised to discover he is American.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Blitzcat by Robert Westall

Robert Westall’s novel Blitzcat is the story of a female black cat named Lord Gort* who travels across England during the war in 1940-41 in search of her special owner and of the people she meets along the way. It is based on the phenomenon of psi-trailing. This is the ability of animals to find their way back to their owners, even over thousands of miles when they have become separated from one another for some reason.

Lord Gort and her family have moved from Dover, Kent to Beaminister, Dorset because her owner Geoff Wensley, a pilot in the Royal Air Force (RAF), has been transferred there but is now flying missions in France. But Lord Gort hates her strange new living situation and she instinctively knows that her special person is far away in the west and she decides to find him: “Somewhere ahead, there was endless happiness again. And she knew how to get there.” (page 8)

On her journey to happiness, Lord Gort has many experiences. Her instincts help warn a lonely, disabled plane spotter in the Observer Corps when an enemy air attack comes. Later, she finds herself at a train station where she stays because the trainloads of soldiers returning from the evacuation of Dunkirk, believing black cats are lucky, feed her well for the chance to rub her back: “’Christ, look, a bloody black cat. That’s the first bit o’ luck I’ve seen since Abbeville…’ And suddenly they were reaching out, stepping on to the platform to touch the lucky black cat. “(Page 31)

But when the trainloads of soldiers stop after 4 June, Lord Gort ends up on a trainload of soldiers heading for Dover. Back in Dover, she senses that her real person is now far away towards the east (He has indeed been transferred.) Nevertheless, she stays there a while in the billet of a Sergeant, and again her instincts warn of an air attack. Eventually, she and the Sergeant get separated in Crewe, Cheshire while traveling to Scotland and the cat begins another journey back to Dover. On the way, she has a litter of kittens on a farm outside Coventry, where she witnesses the devastating bombing of Coventry on 14 November 1940.

When it is time for her to move on, one of her kittens follows. During a bitter cold snowstorm, they wind up in the barn of a suicidal woman whose husband has been killed in the war. Leaving her kitten with the woman, she resumes her search in the spring. En route, Lord Gort unknowingly get too close to a UXB, which goes off, causing her to temporarily lose her sense of smell, sight and hearing. Getting all but her hearing back, she continues on and lands at an RAF base, where she becomes a companion of a lonely rear-gunner named Tommy. Because of her deafness, she is able to fly many successful missions with him. The pilots believe she is good luck until she refuses to fly a plane, which crashes on takeoff. After that, they turn on her and try to get rid of her. She manages to sneak on a plane headed for Germany, but she and Tommy end up parachuting out of it over France. They eventually make it back to England, and Lord Gort continues her journey, making one more stop at the home of a NSPCA worker, where she has another litter of kittens. One day, she senses her real owner is near, towards the south-west in the direction of Dorset and she sets off again on a last journey.

This is only a bare-bones outline of Lord Gort’s adventures, and there is so much more to each person’s story, including that of her real owner and his family, giving the reader a well rounded picture of life during the war. Westall manages to successfully convey the sense of fear, loss and pathos war brings to people, as well as the tenacity and strength the people of Britain must have had in order to endure and carry on.

To his credit, Westall never wavers from keeping Lord Gort a cat that acts on her instincts and senses, and does not endow her with human qualities or abilities. It is one of the things that make Lord Gort so endearing. But this is definitely a YA novel because descriptions within the story can be a little raw at times, but it is definitely worth a read.

*Lord Gort (her owner thought she was a male kitten) was named for the real Lord John Gort, who was the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Forces that ultimately ended up being evacuated from Dunkirk just before the fall of France.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Johnny and the Bomb by Terry Pratchett

Life isn’t terribly exciting in Blackbury, England in 1996 until 21 May 1941, the night of the Blackberry Blitz and the destruction of Paradise Street, where 19 residents are killed. It all begins when 13 year old Johnny Maxwell and his friends find the local bag lady, Mrs. Tachyon, lying in an alley near her overturned shopping cart and her black plastic bags strewn about, blown from the past to the present by an unexploded bomb or UXB. Johnny does the right thing and calls an ambulance to take her to the hospital. And because he is a good kid, he takes her shopping cart, her bags and her demon cat Guilty home to store in his garage until Mrs. Tachyon can reclaim them. This incident begins Johnny’s foray in time travel, accompanied by his friends Yo-less, Bigmac, Wobbler and Kristy. As Mrs. Tachyon explains to Johnny when he visits her in the hospital “Them’s bags of time, mister man. Mind me bike! Where your mind goes, the rest of you’s bound to follow. Here today and gone tomorrow! Doing it’s the trick! eh?” (page 49) And because Johnny’s mind has been on his school project about the Blackbury Blitz that is exactly where Mrs. Tachyon’s bags of time take him and his friends.

Travelling back in time, Johnny is not only faced with the dilemma of knowing what the result of the Blackury Blitz will be, but also with the possibility of changing its grim outcome. It is a classic fork in the road dilemma given a new twist, or as the mysterious Sir John, burger magnet and richest man in the world, presents it to his chauffeur in 1996 “Did you know that when you change time, you get two futures heading off side by side?...Like a pair of trousers.” (page 55-56)

In 1941, Bigmac, a skinhead who finds cars with keys in the ignition irresistible, is arrested for stealing one and then accused of being a German spy. He manages to get away from the police by stealing one of their bicycles. Thanks to Bigmac, the group is forced to return to 1996 to escape. Unfortunately, when they get there, they discover that they have left Wobbler behind. Do they go back and return Wobbler to the present time? What leg of the trousers does history follow if they leave him in 1941? What leg of the trousers does history follow is they go back for Wobbler? And who is the mysterious Sir John and what does he have to do with everything?

Johnny and the Bomb presents a number of interesting conundrums for the reader. Every fan of time travel stories knows the cardinal rule that if you manage to find a way to time travel, you must not change anything or you change the future. But doesn’t the very fact of your presence in a time you have traveled to constitute a change? So, can you change something and still have the same future result – more or less?
Johnny and the Bomb was a well done, thoroughly enjoyable novel. It is the third book in the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy. The first two books are Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) and Johnny and the Dead. It was made into a movie by BBC in 2006 in the UK, but can be viewed in 10 minute increments on YouTube. Though a little different from the book, I still found it to be entertaining. Mrs. Tachyon was played by ZoĆ« Wanamaker, who, as fans of the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone will remember, was Madame Hooch, the flying instructor (among her other numerous excellent roles.)

Speaking of the time traveling Mrs. Tachyon, there is an interesting concept in Physics called a tachyon. Essentially, a tachyon is an imaginary particle of ordinary matter that can travel faster than the speed of light, which means it can travel back in time.

It seemed appropriate to begin this blog about World War II-themed books for young readers with a time travel novel, even if the focus is not directly about the war. Historical fiction is, after all, similar to Mrs. Tachyon’s bags of time, and the novels become a portal that can transport and return me to the time period under consideration.