Today’s blog post is something a bit different. In three weeks time, it will be 11th November 2018 and marks the centenary of Armistice Day. It signifies the end of World War I (the eleventh hour, in the eleventh day of the eleventh month) and commemorates all of the lives lost during this bloody war.
There are no longer any surviving veterans of WWI so it is more important than ever to remember all of the people who gave their lives and teach the younger generations about the sacrifices they made and why we need to ensure history never repeats itself.
So with that in mind, I have set about writing a series of posts about middle-grade books set in WWI, starting with White Feather.
Enjoy and have a wonderful Sunday.
Book Title: White Feather
Author(s): Catherine and David MacPhail
Publisher: Barrington Stoke
Publication Date: Out now
The First World War is over, but for Tony there is little to celebrate. His brother never returned from no man’s land. To make it worse, Charlie died not as a hero but was executed as a coward. Grief-stricken Tony refuses to believe that his brother was a traitor, and he is pushed to the edge in his dark quest to uncover the horrifying truth.
If you plan to read this book, I recommend you do it when there is no-one else around. Get yourself a cup of tea and allow yourself to be completely immersed. And then get ready to think about it endlessly for days on end. This is what I did.
I had so many questions I decided to reach out to the publicist at Barrington Stoke (thank you, Kirstin!) and ask for an interview with David, co-author of White Feather and son of Catherine.
What prompted you and your mother to write about WWI and particularly focus on the issue of cowardice in White Feather?
We’ve been writing separately for years, but Mum and I always talked about writing something together. We finally decided to do it one morning, early in 2016, while sitting round Mum’s breakfast table. We talked about tying our story into an upcoming anniversary. The one that leapt out at us from the off was the 100th anniversary of the Armistice in 1918.
We spoke about what it would have been like for people, how it would have felt to come through all that relentless suffering. Everybody would have been affected. Every family, rich and poor.
We felt that it would be fascinating to set a story in the immediate aftermath of the war. We spoke about what it would have been like for people, how it would have felt to come through all that relentless suffering. Everybody would have been affected. Every family, rich and poor.
We talked about the men who returned from war, and the men who didn’t. We were particularly interested in the men who’d been shot for cowardice. The British army shot hundreds of its own men during the Great War. Many of those men had volunteered to fight. Some had excellent service records and had fought bravely. Some of them were barely boys. The youngest ones had even lied about their age to get in. They don’t seem like cowards to me. What happened in the fog of war that turned these ‘heroes’ into ‘cowards’? Is Charlie a coward, having been one of those shot at dawn? Is Lt Fortune a ‘coward’, or is he just as much a victim of war as anyone else?
What type of research did you conduct to ensure your book is historically accurate?
While it’s a work of fiction, the themes that run through it are all based on our reading. I do all my research through our local library, which is tiny, but has access to a whole world of books. It’s such a wonderful service. I order the books I need through the online catalogue. Of particular interest to us was a book called Shot at Dawn by Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes. However, I must say that from a storytelling point of view I’ve found old photographs to be more inspiring. Faces in the trenches, faces in the crowds back home, a grainy wartime image of the the execution post where men were led, blindfolded and with their arms tied behind their backs, waiting on the order to fire. Charlie is based on a real boy, whose name was Herbert Burden. He lied about his age to join up. He was only 16. His unit was thrown into action around Ypres and suffered terrible casualties. A shell-shocked Herbert deserted, but was soon caught and hauled before a military tribunal. With no one to defend him, and senior officers seeking to make an example, he was condemned as a coward and executed by firing squad.
In my reading of the book, I felt a strong range of emotions towards the characters; torn between heartbreak for Tony and pity for Lt. Fortune. Does your strength of feeling lean towards any particular character?
White Feather is about what war does to people, including those on the home front. No family, however rich or poor, would have been immune. The guns may have fallen silent but every character in the book has suffered – is still suffering. Lt Fortune too. He’s barely just a boy himself.
The guns may have fallen silent but every character in the book has suffered – is still suffering.
Mum would probably say Tony was closest to her, as he’s the main character and the one whose shoes we spent most time in, although Charlie, while he’s (mostly) unseen, came through quite strong for me.
Fortune’s account of Charlie’s execution is incredibly powerful. What was your experience of writing and revising this scene?
We were pleased with how that scene turned out. We started off writing the book with a dual narrative, so we originally wrote this scene from Charlie’s point of view. In the end we felt it worked better with Fortune describing it. In fact, we found it worked better without the dual narrative at all. Charlie’s role in the book was ever-present, but he became more of a ‘ghost’!
At a time when there are no surviving WWI veterans, is there a key message you would like young readers to take away from White Feather?
Yes, never forget the damage that war does, and never forget your loved ones! At its heart, White Feather is about a boy trying to rescue what’s left of his family from the effects of war. The two brothers are based on a real Tony and Charlie, my Mum’s two uncles who went off to fight in World War Two. One came back, and the other didn’t, except in our case it was Charlie who returned.
…never forget the damage that war does, and never forget your loved ones.
I once went to visit the real Tony’s grave in Italy. The book is dedicated ‘To Mum’. That’s me dedicating it to my Mum, who fell ill the day after we delivered the final edits, and her dedicating it to her own Mum, (my Grandmother), who lost her own brother to the war.
Many thanks to David for agreeing to answer my questions and providing such emotive and well-considered responses.
If are in the UK, you can find out what commemorative events are taking place near you here. There are variations of Armistice Day all over the world – and not forgetting Remembrance Day. Let me know in the comments below if and how you’ll be marking the occasion.
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