Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Truce by Jim Murphy, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, and Day of the Assassins by Johnny O'Brien

The Blindside is one of my favorite movies of the year. The inspirational movie is based on the true rags-to-riches story of Michael Oher. Today, Michael Oher is a successful offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL, but as a child Michael courageously faced a daily life of adversity and tragedy.He was poor and he lacked the education most kids his age deserve. His future looked bleak when suddenly his circumstances changed because of the generosity of a well-to-do family that took Michael into their home. The family eventually adopted him.

Like other movies that are based on a true story, this one probably took dramatic license with some of the details. One powerful scene from the movie showed how Michael struggled to write an essay that would qualify him for college. He chose to write an essay on the poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The poem is about 600 brave British cavalry soldiers that charge with horse and sabre against an enemy that fires back with rifle and canon. Flesh and blood against metal and gunpowder. Guess who wins.

"Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them,
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell,
Rode the six hundred."

Duty, honor, courage. These qualities are important to Michael Oher. They mean something. However, did 600 soldiers on the backs of horses have a chance against bullets and canon shells? Not a chance. As I reflect on the movie, Blindside, I'm inspired, but as I reflect on the poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, the more I get... disturbed. The men of the light brigade obeyed orders. They fulfilled their duty. They were honored for their courage. They looked death directly in the eye as the fog of war surrounded them, but how can we ignore the insanity of the one who gave the order for that suicidal charge?

I would now like to turn your attention to a new non-fiction book about World War 1 called, Truce, by Jim Murphy. The book concisely describes what World War 1 was like but also points to significant and strange incident that occurred, as if a giant heavenly hand pressed the pause button in the middle of the war. I am referring to the incident that occurred in 1914 when soldiers from both sides decided not to follow orders so they could briefly honor peace-on-earth and good-will-toward-men. It is now called the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Duty, honor, courage, and even excitement were good enough reasons for many to volunteer by the hundreds of thousands to fight World War 1. Yet, once they saw No Man's Land, that barren crater-pocked barb-wired field of death that laid a few hundred yards between both sides, many questioned to themselves what they were fighting for.

World War 1 is somewhat of a mystery to some. Ask someone about World War 2 and you'll get a response, but ask what World War 1 was about, not many will tell you. Another reason it may more mysterious than World War 2 may be the fact that both ancient and modern methods of war were used. Modern methods used included poison gas, tanks, planes, and machine guns. What many of you might not know is that horses played a prominent role in World War 1.

Horses were used to move artillery. Horses were used to move the wounded. At the beginning of the war horses were even used in cavalry charges, like in, The Charge of the Light Brigade. Can you imagine mounted cavalry going against a line of machine gunners nested in protective trenches [p.23]? Slaughter. Eventually generals on both sides figured out that horses didn't have a chance against machine guns. Yet, the generals never did figure out that sending soldiers across a No-Man's-Land against machine guns and artillery fire was equally ineffective.

World War 1 basically turned into a war fought between two opposing sides dug into trenches that shot at each other everyday. Occasionally one side would try to charge across No Man's Land until most of them were mowed down by machine guns, rifle fire, shrapnel or poison gas. Those that survived would retreat to plan their next suicidal mission. Slaughter.

The insanity of how World War 1 was fought may explain the strange truce informally declared that first Christmas of the war. The generals on both sides forbade their soldiers to stop fighting on Christmas, but on December 24th, songs like Silent Night and the First Noel broke the silence of cold air separating enemy trenches. Instead of flashes of light from bombs and gunfire, candle light glowed from trenches across the barren No Man's Land. Almost along the entire war front soldiers disobeyed orders and refused to fight on the Christmas Truce of World War 1. [p.60]

When news of this remarkable event reached back to the generals they were furious. Truce, by Jim Murphy, is a remarkable story of how a moment of sanity prevailed for one brief moment in the midst of the War to End All Wars.

On the subjects of World War 1 and horses, I would also like to recommend, War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo.

War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo, is told from first person point of view, or should I say 1st horse point of view. In this book, a story about World War 1 is told from the point of view of a horse named Joey. Joey is an impressive steed. A British Captain knew Joey would be a valuable addition when he bought him from the farm family who had to sell the horse or lose their farm. In chapter 8, we find Joey trained and ready to play his part in a British cavalry brigade. Joey likes Captain Nichols and despite the fact that he is a big man the captain knows how to ride light on Joey.

News quickly spread. The enemy had been sighted. Orders were given.

"Forward! Form squadron column! Draw swords!"

Then you can imagine Joey's heart pumping as he says:

"Out of the corner of my eye, I was aware of the glint of Captain Nicholls's sword. I felt his spurs in my side, and I heard his battle cry. I saw gray soldiers ahead of us raise their rifles and heard the death rattle of a machine gun, and then quite suddenly I found that I had no rider, that I had no weight on my back anymore, and that I was alone out in front of the squadron."

Brave horse that he was, Joey continued galloping right into the kneeling riflemen that scattered as he came upon them. As Joey looked behind him, bodies of soldiers and horses were strewn everywhere. In their first action, over a quarter of the squadron had been wiped out. Horses were no match for machine guns, but at the beginning of the war some thought they only wanted to win the war if the cavalry could win it. Did they forget what happened in, The Charge of the Light Brigade?

Will Joey have the courage to face another charge against an enemy with machine guns? What will happen to him if he is wounded? Will Joey survive World War 1 and ever see his farm family again?

If you like war stories, I would recommend War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo.

Related Website:

Information on a musical about the Christmas Truce at MPR.

Bonus Book: Day of the Assassins by Johnny O'Brien

If you are looking for another fiction book about World War 1 and don't mind a little time-travel thrown in, I'd like to suggest, Day of the Assassins, to you. Find out how an assassination of one man led to one of the bloodiest wars in human history.
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