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Book Report: Five Children on the Western Front

Five Children on the Western Front.

I mean, really, that’s all you need, isn’t it? If you love Five Children and It, that phrase will make you do the arithmetic and discover that Cyril would have been 21 in 1914, and Robert nearly 18. Like all the families in England, all the families in Europe, their boys would have gone to war. That title, that moment when you think about Cyril on the Western Front, is enough to make me cry, anyway.

For someone (such as Your Humble Blogger) who reads a fair amount of late-Victorian and Edwardian lit, it’s always a bit of a shock to remember that all those boys would have gone to war, and most of them would have died. Hard to imagine Freddie Eynsford-Hill living through the war, isn’t it? The Baker Street irregulars, turned regulars, gassed. Dickon from My Secret Garden a Tommy under Flanders field. Button-Bright might have been old enough to serve by 1918, if he hadn’t moved to Oz by then (I was never clear how old Button-Bright was supposed to be, actually). Frederick turned 21 in 1880, so I suppose he probably would have been too old to serve at 54—tho’ he hadn’t reached his fourteenth birthday. Mostly, though, it’s the Nesbit collection of 1905 children, full of hope and promise, living in a pre-war bubble. I don’t know if there has been a lot of fanfic written on the topic before; I don’t really want to know, I suppose. The title is enough.

And yet, as it happens, the book is quite good. Kate Saunders (who may well turn out to be in the Top Five Saunderses of this Tohu Bohu) wrote the book with restraint and imagination—I think I had written (Oh, look, I sorta did) about the problems of writing the further adventures of beloved characters. Essentially, you can either attempt to keep the character exactly as it was in the earlier books, which is deathly and besides untrue to the character’s new circumstances, or you can attempt to portray the character’s growth and change, which is a betrayal of the character we have loved for decades. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s bound to be tricky, any way you go about it. Even if you are writing about Pooh Bear. Ms. Saunders made (in my opinion) an excellent job of the gutsy version, making Anthea (f’r’ex) a young woman who was just enough like the girl of ten years previous to be plausibly her temporal replacement without being so much the same as to invide invidious comparison. And the gutsiest part was inventing a whole new sibling, younger than the Lamb, to be the right age to be interested in sand-fairies after the Bigguns were busy with their lives. I was upset, at first, by the sixth child, but after a few pages I was happy with it. It’s the Psammead at the center of the book, anyway, not the siblings. Or, well, that isn’t exactly right, but in the way that the foolish wishes of the first book brought the children new understanding, in this book the Psammead finds out his own foolishness. Magic isn’t working the way it did, precisely, in the earlier books, but then nothing else is, either.

Now, I do want to register a significant complaint, which is that the book concerns itself rather too much with romantic love, for my taste. That’s understandable, with the four children we know best entering the world of grown-up things, but it winds up meaning that the Psammead’s lessons in the meaning of Love are focused rather strongly on romantic love to the exclusion of paternal, fraternal or filial devotion, or even willing to call the comradeship of the trenches by the name. I don’t mean to knock romantic love, or even to deny it primacy in the love-pantheon, but if a sand-fairy is being forced to recognize the human capacity for love as a good thing, stopping with romantic love is a problem for me. Particularly, of course, since the crushing heteronormativity of nice upper-middle-class WWI England quite plausibly keeps the family away from any wider possibilities than one-man-one-woman-marriage; I personally might be amused by the crew coming out of the British Museum into Russell Square and falling in with some of the Bloomsbury crowd, but their Mother would not be so amused.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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