If your history classes in school were anything like mine, then this is how a typical year would go: Lots of Revolutionary War, lots of Civil War, oh no it’s almost the end of the year so let’s just skip to WWII, and finally a brief smattering of Vietnam. WWI got the short end of the stick year after year after year when I was growing up. In fact, by the time I graduated from high school I associated only a couple vague images with it: mustard gas, red poppies, and All Quiet On The Western Front. Now mine was a particularly silly education, but I worry about kids today. Surely I’m not the only person who went through this. So what do you hand a ten-year-old who wants a really good book on WWI, and also wants it to explain how it happened? There are full-fledged adults operating in the world right now that haven’t a clue about who or what Franz Ferdinand was (aside from a contemporary band). I guess what I love so much about Jim Murphy’s Truce is that it not only talks about the famous and spontaneous truce between two opposing sides that happened around Christmas Day in 1914, but the author also takes the time to put the whole war into context without wasting so much as a word. This can only be described as senselessness synthesized.
It was considered a bit of a Christmas miracle at the time. A sprawling war, two sides taught to hate one another, and then . . . peace. Apropos of nothing, troops put down their weapons and met in No Man’s Land to exchange gifts, sing songs, and play games. But how did it happen? To understand that is to understand WWI within context. Its causes, key players, and ultimately how it ended. Jim Murphy, historian extraordinaire, breaks it down for the kids and delivers a painful but ultimately strangely hopeful encapsulation of a moment in time that was admirable in its unlikelihood. A Time Line, Notes and Sources, additional bibliography, and index are included.
If WWII is "the good war" then WWI’s the one we like to try to surreptitiously slip behind our backs. It doesn’t have any of the iconography of its successor, nor the sheer black and white of the good and evil of the time. Maybe that’s why there aren’t that many children’s books about it. Truce works as well as it does because it not only clarifies the confusing details (Franz Josef knowing full well that the Serbs weren’t behind the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, for example) but also because he’s created a narrative for the war. It was dumb as all get out. Not a reason in the world to justify it, really, and the sheer amount of blood spilt is enough to turn your head. Truce is history plus interest for the middle grade non-fiction reader not yet ready for three hundred page tomes.
Even the chapter headings are interesting. They have great titles like "Those Stupid Kings and Emperors" and "Things Were Beginning to Look Unpleasant" which more often than not come from direct quotes of the time. Murphy also gives a human face to the drama. I like to think that he also does a great job of showing how similar the two sides were, particularly when it comes to their commanding officers. When the truce broke out, commanders on both sides were livid. The English would avoid similar Christmas truces in the future with continual artillery barrages. Corporal Adolf Hitler said of it, "Such a thing should never happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor left at all?" I think that part of the reason Truce stands out amongst its fellows is that it shows both sides continually. The photographs are taken by both sides. The quotations and memories too. And we even see how nasty propaganda demonizing the enemy was used by opposing countries prior to the war to get the populace involved.
The natural fictional pairing with this book is Michael Foreman’s War Game: Village Green to No-Man’s-Land. A less immediate association, but no less apt, is Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan. Though ostensibly a kind of Steampunk novel, Westerfeld’s book would be a great read after Truce once kids understand the characters and want to hear about them in a fictional setting. Plus, now that they have the rudimentary causes of the war under their belts, they’ll be able to better understand historical fiction novels about that time period.
The fact of the matter is, it was a stupid war that killed a lot of people. Murphy even goes so far as to show how it helped sow the seeds that led to WWII. That makes it all the crazier that it was started by just a few guys, and could have been cut off if personalities had been different or if they’d listened to their enlisted men and stopped it after that first Christmas. Truce, when you get right down to it, is a sad story. One of the most touching moments in the book is when you read the words of a British private who greeted a German in No Man’s Land. "The first man I came to was an old man, and when we shook hands I thought he was not going to let my hand go. The tears came rolling down his cheeks, and I felt sorry for him as he was so old, and wanted to go home." He could have. As Major Murdoch McKenzie Wood would later say, "it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again." A great introduction to WWI and undeniably the best book for kids on the subject I’ve ever seen. And it’ll break your heart in the bargain.
On shelves now.
Source: ARC provided by publisher.
Notes on the Cover: The art is done by one Scott McKowen. You’ve probably seen his covers for classic books released by Sterling, sold in Barnes and Nobles. I originally knew of him because in Stratford, Ontario his posters adorn the city’s restaurants. On top of all that, he did the art for Gaiman’s graphic novel 1602. My hope is that we see more of his jackets in the near future. The man has talent.
- Read selections from the starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal here.
- USA Today
- Publishers Weekly
- Vicky Smith at Kirkus sings Truce an old-fashioned love song.