Saturday, 1 April 2017

MR MIDSHIPMAN HORNBLOWER

    
In his Hornblower stories C.S. Forester combines historical accuracy with exciting adventure. We
meet seventeen year old Horatio in the first book, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, when he is
commissioned to service as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. The date is January, 1794, five years
after the start of the French Revolution.


Horatio is a quiet lad, not really at ease in society, totally inexperienced and further burdened by a
nervous stutter. Like his famous namesake, Horatio Nelson, young Hornblower is desperately seasick
at the start of every voyage. Added to Hornblower’s inadequacies for adaption to life at sea is his fear
of heights, so it is scarcely surprising he is given a really hard time by his fellow midshipmen who
consider him totally unfit for a life at sea.

Though desperately unhappy, Hornblower carries out his duties faithfully and well. The worst of Horatio's bullies is Midshipman Simpson, a man in his thirties who has failed the Lieutenant's exam so many times he knows he will never get promotion. Simpson finally goads Hornblower into challenging him to a duel with pistols. The ship's captain is informed of this and, by now well aware of Hornblower's potential, steps in to ensure neither pistol is loaded. Later the captain arranges for Hornblower's transfer to another ship, HMS Indefatigable. Aboard Indefatigable Hornblower is plunged into war with the French. He is given charge of a captured brig, loses it, tangles with Spaniards, is confined to a Spanish prison, and finally released.

Arrived back in England, Hornblower achieves the rank of Lieutenant.
In The Happy Return (entitled Beat to Quarters in the U.S.A.), he is now a Captain, under orders to
sail his frigate, HMS Lydia, into South American waters to track down, pursue and sink the Spanish
two-decker Natividad, a ship with nearly twice as much firepower as the Lydia.
Having successfully completed his mission to sink the Natividad, Hornblower sets out in quest of
further victories. 

Alas, in A Ship of the Line, Hornblower meets with ignominious defeat and the
humiliation of yielding his ship to the French. He himself is taken prisoner. 


From the confines of the French prison, and with his own execution imminent, Hornblower
witnesses firsthand the horrors of the guillotine.  Eventually he escapes from Napoleon's marinets
as he is being taken to face a firing squad.



With many adventures along the road, Hornblower makes his way down the Loire and to freedom in
Flying Colours.




Hornblower and the Crisis brings our Hero to the Battle of Trafalgar and, in fierce hand-to-hand
fighting, the most desperate battle of his life.

Following the death of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, Horatio leaves a nation in mourning and returns to
the fray against Bonaparte's navy in Hornblower and the Atropos.


To conclude this blog, when asked what he thought of the Hornblower books, a youthful reader enthused, "Oh, they're incomparable. Terrific writing. C.S. Forester is fantastically knowledgeable but never tedious on technical things. You get such a feel for the period. The lifestyles, politics, attitudes, day to day living, all that sort of thing. And with gripping stories underpinning it all."
What greater praise could be given the series, what greater hook to entice young readers to historical fiction?




Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Dogs At War



Throughout history when men have gone to war, so have their dogs.  The first story here, War Dog, by Henry Treece (1911-66), is a stirring tale set in south-eastern Britain, A.D. 43. 

Bran was a black, rough-haired pup who was entrusted to Gwyn, son of the Catavellauni king’s hound keeper, to rear and train as a war-dog.  When old enough, he was taken to the blacksmith and fitted with the broad bronze collar that would protect his vulnerable throat in confrontations with wild animals. Once Bran had sufficiently honed his attack skills against wolves, he was tested against a different foe – a Silurian prisoner.  Though unused to fighting a man and at first bewildered, Bran won this fight. Now he was ready for war, and his bronze collar was overlaid with a massive spiked collar.
In AD43, Claudius launched an invasion of Britain. Bran accompanied Gwyn and his master, Caratacus, King of the Catavellauni, to war against the Roman invaders.  Though the Catavellauni fought bravely, their chariots and stallions were no match for the great number of heavily armoured Romans and their elephants.  At the battle’s end, Caratacus was led off prisoner, Gwyn lay dead on the field, and Bran was beaten unconscious and left for dead as he lay over Gwyn’s body.
He did not die, however; there were more adventures for Bran before his journey’s end, in Rome, far away from south eastern Britain. 
While Henry Treece does not gloss over the hardships, cruelties and uncertainties of the time, he reminds us that the Ancient Britons were not savages but much like ourselves, albeit minus radio, telephones, cell phones, satellites, and television. This neat little book artfully combines an action tale with history, and includes two pages of  historical fact at the end.

 Although Judy’s story is fact, not fiction, she was such a heroine of the war in the Pacific, she deserves recognition.  Robert Weintraub’s book is a children’s version of his earlier adult book. It is a gripping tale of one amazing dog, a true heroine if ever there was one. 
    Judy was born in a kennel for British citizens in Shanghai.  Ever adventurous, she escaped from the outdoor pen at just a few weeks old.  Her first encounter was then, when a Japanese sailor kicked the tiny pup across the street. This, Judy’s first encounter with them, led to a lifelong dislike of Japanese.  Luckily, shortly afterwards a girl who worked at the kennel found the pup and took Judy back.
The story goes from Judy’s days as a Royal Navy ship’s mascot on a gunboat in the Yangtze River to her ship being bombed, her long and dangerous trek through the jungle, her narrow escape when she attacked a crocodile while saving ‘her men’, to her days as an official Prisoner of War, and her many narrow squeaks from being shot by the Japanese guards.  Throughout, Judy went about her work of alerting people to imminent danger, saving many lives, and comforting those in distress.  The last man she attached herself to was Frank Williams, who she sensed was desperately in need of a friend.
While it is a harrowing tale, it does have some funny incidents and young readers will be happy to learn  in 1946 Judy was awarded the Dickins medal, the canine equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

My last choice is the stories of three dogs, from the foul trenches of the first World War, to Greenland in the early days of WWll, and finally to Vietnam.
Sheila Keenan provides the text and Nathan Fox the illustrations.  I must confess I couldn’t follow the graphics – too much – but I am prepared to believe they will appeal to a reluctant reader. 
The first story is of Marcellinus, dubbed Donnie, and his Border Collie Boots.  In December, 1914, they followed Dr. Fulham to Ypres with the Nova Scotia Highlanders.  A white band round his middle, with a broad Red Cross either side, denoted Boots was a mercy dog.  Her task was to crawl into no-man’s-land after dark to sniff out wounded men; she could even detect life in those left for dead.  Then she would guide the stretcher bearers to the rescue.  After one tremendous, blinding explosion Donnie and Boots were separated from the doctor and ended up with an Irish regiment. Boots managed to catch a goose, which made a welcome change from army rations.  The story ends with Boots rescuing a wounded Donnie, and both being reunited with Dr. Fulham.
The second story is a totally different setting, a brand new American Air Force base in icy Greenland, spring 1942.  New recruit Cooper is assigned to work the dog team. Loki, the only white dog on the team is labelled “tricky – he’ll do anything for food and is hard to handle,” by the sergeant.  Cooper forms an immediate bond with Loki, much to the sergeant’s annoyance.  When the sergeant learns Nazis have come on an espionage mission, he sets out on reconnaissance. Cooper, with Loki leading the team, goes with him.  From then on it’s all action – they hear, but cannot see, another sled – Nazis?  An American plane goes down close to them, when they reach it there’s only the pilot alive.  He’s badly injured. The ice starts to move, there’s a top secret weapon aboard the plane, it cannot fall into enemy hands.  One hazard follows another, and Cooper has to depend on Loki’s smarts, strength, and courage to succeed in his mission.
The third story hinges between August 1968 in North Carolina and 1967-68 in Dau Tieng, Vietnam.  Henryis lonely.  His mother assured  him North Carolina, where she came from, would be special.  But the trailer park was anything but special that summer – no other kids, and old Mrs.Johnson who ‘thought she was special because she was the only one with a working television, and kept it blaring all the time to let folk know’.  The trailer next to Henry’s was empty. One day his mother brought home a Beagle pup that Henry named Bouncer.  Alas, Bouncer fell foul of Mrs Johnson. Tibbets, the park manager arrived just in time to see Bouncer knock over a trash can. He told Henry he had to get rid of Bouncer, or he would.  The ‘empty’ trailer door opens, and Lanford orders Henry to pick up the trash.  Tibbets yelps that he won’t stand for it…Lanford grabs Tibbets by the shirt front and stares him down.  Tibbets goes off, muttering, “Crazy Vet, crazy Vet”, which leads to Lanford having nightmares about Vietnam.
Bouncer leaps on him as he lies in his lounger outside his trailer, waking Lanford who commanded, “Down!” and much to Henry’s surprise, Bouncer obeyed.  Lanford had a dog once.
He helped Henry train Bouncer, and little by little man and boy became friends.  Lanford is a super artist. His trailer is full of drawings, of Vietnam, his buddy Hado, and his beloved German Shepherd bitch, Sheba.  She was one wonderful dog. The graphics portray the hell that was Vietnam, Lanford’s pain when Hado was blown apart and still tried to joke, and, even worse when he had to leave Sheba behind.
This story leaves the young reader with a lot of questions, because there are a lot of Lanfords out there, now coming from Iran and Afghanistan.
            The colours chosen for the graphics are evocative of the particular times; the khakis, oranges, scarlet and shadows of the trenches, the starkness of the Arctic, the camouflage greens and duns of Vietnam.  As I’ve said, the written word is more powerful for me, but the bilingual eleven year old grandchild to whom I gave this book loves it.