History - Fighting fascism

22nd March 2013 at 00:00
A romantic novel paints a vivid picture of the Spanish Civil War

In his King's speech of 3 September 1939, George VI spoke of "dark days ahead" and "war no longer confined to the battlefield". The prediction was apt given the recent horrors of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), in which civilian populations were deliberately targeted.

Despite it being a forerunner of the world conflict due to erupt in 1939, few schools study what happened in Spain in the 1930s. Yet it might be appropriate, as this year is the 110th anniversary of the birth of George Orwell, who wrote the excellent Homage to Catalonia about his experiences of the war.

Now, a more recent addition to the literature of the civil war - Lydia Syson's gripping romantic adventure for teenagers, A World Between Us - could be useful for those wanting to broaden their revision of the period.

Syson's three main characters have very different motives for their participation in the war. Print shop designer Nat is part of an International Brigade - an extension of his home-grown political idealism. At the start of the novel he is involved in the October 1936 Battle of Cable Street, which erupted between the police and anti-fascist groups intent on preventing Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts from marching through London's East End.

Journalist George, on the other hand, is drawn to the Republican cause by the horrors he witnessed being inflicted by dictator Franco's Nationalist forces and allies on civilian populations from 1937 onwards.

Completing the triangle is young nurse Felix, whose journey to Spain is more impulsive. She has both a political and romantic involvement with the cause and the other characters.

The great advantage of these three characters is the distinct aspects of the civil war they witness. Through Nat we experience the terrors of the battlefield. George, with his journalist's right to roam, brings us details of the market day bombing of the Basque capital Guernica in April 1937.

And through Felix we gain a picture of the pressures, pain and occasional triumphs of battlefield surgical units, including a powerful scene where she gives a transfusion of her own blood.(This was the first conflict in which the injured could reliably receive transfusions on or near the battlefield.) For Syson, the giving of blood becomes a metaphor for self-sacrifice. It is also the source of a terrible betrayal and the novel's main mystery.

In her historical afterword, Syson repeats Albert Camus' famous dictum: describing the Republican defeat in 1939, he said "men learned that one can be right and still be beaten". But ultimately her book is a sombre lesson, offset in part by the passion of its characters for the fight against fascism.

Jerome Monahan is a freelance teacher and journalist who provides primary and secondary Inset and pupil enrichment workshops nationally and internationally. A World Between Us is published by Hot Key Books. www.hotkeybooks.combooksdetaila-world-between-us

What else?

Find out what triggered the Spanish Civil War and how it developed with an activity shared by avilchez.


Examine the relationships between competing factions in Franco's Spain in a lesson from Robinofthedyers.


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