Back to the battlefield

6th November 1998 at 00:00
JACKIE WAS A HERO. DON'T SHOUT AT THE GUNS. By Lawrence Harris. The Cartoon Cave, PO Box 9138, London W3 7WQ. Pounds 5.99 each

The American novelist Bernard Malamud has a striking phrase about the impossibility of making pure clay from time's mud. Lawrence Harris, a BBC journalist, has done his best to fashion two serviceable pots to hold something of the flow of the past for a new generation of young readers.

The first story, Jackie Was a Hero, involves the English twins Tom and Polly and their mysterious camcorder that allows them to see, smell and hear the past while remaining invisible and unaffected themselves. They take it on a school journey to the Somme where they bear witness to the courage and endurance of a long-dead great-uncle. Flashes of vivid detail - such as an officer's silver-topped riding crop - evoke life and death among the horrifying scenes of Thiepval and Fricourt.

The dialogue is stilted in places, but the book takes a vigorous and plausible approach to abhorrent facts. It's best read in conjunction with Harris's new novel, Don't Shout at the Guns, in which the twins encounter two sassy New York children visiting France with their grandfather.

This story pays a belated homage to the involvement of the Americans in World War I: not just the troops who fought on the Marne in 1918, but the volunteers who were there from the beginning. It recaptures the semi-absurd chivalric world of the aviators, their dogfights and champagne toasts to defeated enemies. It also suggests, in the sly meanness of Goering, that courage is a virtue that can co-exist with cruelty.

Children of about nine to 12 will respond enthusiastically to these clear, effective narratives with their careful historical research and their slightly sentimental theme of reparation to the unpitiable dead. We can't know if it was like this, but Harris is a plausible modern witness.

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