30 November 2020, by Maureen Tai
“They tried to be good children. John tried to be a good boy. He knelt by the bed and said his prayers each night…But each morning he woke and there seemed to be no end to come. The war continued.”
We have regaled in the victory story of World War I for so long that we have forgotten, not so much how horrific the events were, but how tenuous its ending was for those who lived in those times. Back then, there was no certainty of triumph, no guarantee of freedom. No one knew when the war would end. War is Over is a powerful reminder of the anxiety, fear, confusion and desperation of the war years, embodied in a gentle, young Northern English boy called John. John’s father is away in France, fighting the enemy. His mam works long, wearying shifts at a nearby munitions factory that John’s class visits one day on a school outing. On that same day, John meets Jan, a German boy.
Jan is from Düsseldorf and is about the same age as John. He has a soft yet steely look in his eyes. Tiny freckles dot his cheeks and his mouth is small, almost birdlike. He wears a black beret.
Jan is a boy that Uncle Gordon, one of John’s classmate’s relatives and an avowed objector to the war, saw during a trip to Germany before the conflict began. As John’s class wends its way to the factory, Uncle Gordon makes a surprise appearance in the middle of the town square, waving Jan’s picture as well as pictures of other German children. He tells John and his classmates that they are not at war. “You are children! Do not believe them when they say you are at war!” Uncle Gordon screams as he is forcibly dragged away and beaten by grown ups, angered by his treachery. As the abuse subsides, two women approach Uncle Gordon and present him with two white feathers, marking him as someone unwilling to enlist in the war effort and too cowardly to sacrifice himself for his country. The feathers are shoved into Uncle Gordon’s collar and the battered man is dragged away by policemen.
John picks up the scrap of paper with Jan’s face on it, and folding it, puts it in his pocket. All day, John thinks. He thinks about about the piles of shells, filled with shrapnel packed by the mothers of the town, including his own beloved mam. He thinks about what the exploding shrapnel does to human bodies that they come into contact with. He thinks about bombs that fly in the air that turn into pigeons. He thinks about the letters he’s written to the King, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury, asking them when the war will be over. He thinks about Jan, the little boy from Düsseldorf, as he writes him a letter. It is a letter of peace, of conciliation, and when it is discovered it almost costs John his life.
In War is Over, John asks questions that remain for the most part, unanswered, and possibly, unanswerable. Why do we wage wars, especially if we are children? Why do we fight and kill when the enemy looks just like us, when they want safety and love just as we do? Why do we not dream of a better place and work towards making that dream a reality? Why do we never learn from history? The heartbreaking prose is beautifully balanced by ethereal black and white illustrations, and by the end of the story, when the Great War has ended – as we knew it would – there is light and hope and promise. But it has come with a price, a terrible human price, one that we should never, ever forget.
War is Over was published in 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the Great War and the child-friendly interview with the author, David Almond, is well worth a watch.
For ages 9 and above.