By Maureen Tai, 4 November 2018
“A war is something you never forget.” – Poppa
The first Remembrance Day service I ever attended was when I was at university in Toronto. I hadn’t learnt much world history during my school days in Malaysia, and what I had been taught were distant and dusty facts, sparse and relevant only in order to pass exams.
I stood in a drizzly grey day, looking up at the names carved into the wall at Hart House. Surrounded by a crowd that included veterans in wheelchairs or leaning on walking sticks, I listened to the mournful bugle notes of “The Last Post” and realised for the first time in my life the enormity of the sacrifices during the World Wars. Even though I hadn’t lived through those devastating years myself, I cried.
And I cry, every time I read Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion, a beautifully crafted and gentle, yet hauntingly sad picture book about Remembrance Day and all that it stands for.
A little boy hangs out in his grandfather’s room as Poppa gets ready to go out. There are pictures on the wall, shadows of planes and places from long ago. A cat is curled up asleep. The boy lies on his grandfather’s tidy bed and unhurriedly leafs through a photo album full of old photographs. As Poppa shaves – the old-fashioned way with shaving cream and a razor – and irons his shirt, the boy revisits his grandfather’s past. From the boy’s many questions and Poppa’s gentle answers, and through the black and white pictures, Poppa’s story of how he left his parents, his sweetheart and his home to join the war effort overseas, unfolds.
In one picture, Poppa is a young man, a soldier, standing at attention with a face youthful yet clouded with anxiety. His uniform is oversized and hangs on him. In another, Poppa is smiling as he stands on the deck of a ship, one arm around the shoulders of his best friend, Stewart. It is a peaceful scene of friendship, of two young men setting off on an adventure. As his grandfather marches proudly across the room, the boy sees a young Poppa reflected in the mirror. The boy imagines a ghostly and luminous peacock strutting behind the old man with its tail feathers magnificently on display.
But then come the grim realities of war. War is ferocious. A roaring lion emerges from the wall with teeth bared and claws unleashed as Poppa puts on a fearless front. A black and white photograph shows an explosion in the middle of a battlefield across which soldiers run. There are no fallen figures and no weapons visible, but a child might ask – as Ben did – “Did anybody die?” (and yes, we do learn of a life too brief in this story). As the ghostly lion and the platoon of soldiers charge across the page, the boy tells us that a bad dream woke Poppa up in the night. There is pride and there is bravery, but the human costs of war are almost too much to bear.
Brilliant flashes of red poppy colour the otherwise sombre final pages as the boy and his Poppa stand at the foot of a cenotaph on a cold, drizzly grey day. The boy and his Poppa can “almost touch the ache.” Whether or not we have lived through the world wars, or any other war – sadly, there are so many – the devastating pain of loss is something we can all relate to.
So even if the memories belong to others, we must choose to remember. Only with the remembering of the horrendous human suffering caused by armed combat can we hope to stop future wars from erupting. It is our responsibility to remember, and we owe it to the fallen not to forget.
For ages 6 and up.