Recently, a speaker at a luncheon marking the 75th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force observed that, each Remembrance Day, he hears veterans complaining about how little others appreciate or even know about their efforts. "How can they understand," he asked, "when you refuse to share your stories with them?" Veterans' stories are one source of information about World War II, which began sixty years ago this September. In Too Young to Fight: Memories From Our Youth During World War II
, Priscilla Galloway and ten others present their personal recollections from another perspective-the homefront.
The list of authors reads like a Who's Who of Canadian writers, educators, and film producers: Roch Carrier, Christopher Chapman, Monica Hughes, Joy Kogawa, and others. They represent Canada coast-to-coast, as well as the United States, Asia, and Great Britain. As creators, they know how to "present a moment", how to capture the aroma, the noise of life (Roch Carrier's "The radio crackled like an egg that's cooking in the frying pan", for example). Many of the writers concede that their writing lives began during the war when they realized, however young they were, that something important was happening.
Their lives were filled with whispering adults, Veronica Lake films, missing chocolate bars, missing books, and, for some, missing relatives. By the end of Claire Mackay's chapter, the personal tally is horrific: in her "own short block" of Toronto, four boys are killed in the war; another soldier/acquaintance commits suicide while on the telephone when he's rejected by his sweetheart; a classmate's father dies the same day the war ends. Christopher Chapman puts it well: "Now we are in our seventies and [Bob, his brother] is still twenty-one."
While any recollection of wartime will be filled with tales of the men who returned without limbs, or without their minds, the autobiographical pieces of Too Young to Fight relate the daily life of children, who, after all, are just kids living like kids. There are tales of Royal Family visits, crushes on classmates (sometimes war guests staying for the duration) and movie stars. The girls, fast becoming women, worry about sloppy joe sweaters, leg makeup, and kissing lots of people at victory parades. The boys chat about cars, play war games, and some of them hope the war won't be over before they are old enough to sign up. (Some do indeed enlist, just as the war is ending.)
For all their childhood joys, however, there is terror. Jean Little and Dorothy Joan Harris were born into missionary families in Taiwan and Japan respectively. After the war began, the kind Asian faces that had smiled upon them were suddenly "the enemy". Joy Kogawa and her brother, Tim Nakayama, were Canadians whose families were stripped of everything, even their church, and shipped to the internment camps in Slocan, British Columbia. They were portrayed in newspapers "as ugly, as unwanted, as deceitful, as somehow sub-human". Mackay's young Jewish friend, Benny, was terrorized in the schoolyard. A poster depicting Nazis in full regalia, holding guns to the heads of children Roch's age, graced the walls of the Carrier garage. "Those Nazis gave me the shivers," he remembers. Monica Hughes recalls the constant hunger.
As with any collection, the writing styles and skills displayed succeed to varying degrees. While some entries suffer from moments of meandering, repetition or preachiness, others are clearly examples of streamlined storytelling. Brian Doyle's piece is very much like his young-adult fiction: plenty of dialogue, a certain smart-aleck tone, some massaging of the facts, a zinging punch in the end. Janet Lunn's chapter is quite "painterly" in its skillful shaping and neat repetitions of image and language. Priscilla Galloway's contribution is cinematic in its scenes and sounds of tea cups and pandemonium.
Too Young to Fight is a book for the not-too-young, for those who lived through World War II or in its long shadows as the children of veterans. The black and white photographs of the writers during the war make these children quite real to the reader. Images of archival toys, games, convoys, and cars also add to the wealth of information. Veterans and educators lamenting Canadian youths' lack of understanding on Remembrance Day might like to use the book with high-school students as a catalyst for the sharing of family histories.
Despite the horror and loss, the quick passing of childhood amid the air-raid sirens, the writers survived.
"Although I still live in a cocoon called Canada, I try not to forget," says Jean Little.
"If you were writing a book about the world's ordinary people during that extraordinary time, my family and my friends and I might be some of the people you would put in it," writes Janet Lunn.
"I'm glad I was there," concludes Budge Wilson.
Like a snapshot album, Too Young to Fight provides glimpses into a shared past that becomes more alive with each page turned, with each memory revived, with each thought of our future.
Linda Granfield's latest book is High Flight: A World War II Story (Tundra Books).