An Awfully Big Adventure: Killing Death in War Stories for Children

Article excerpt

In her useful summary of the growth of discourses dealing with issues of death and dying Kerry Mallan offers a list of 'causes of death [which] covers all possibilities: disease, accident, suicide, murder, execution, old age, childbirth, birth defects and so on' (Mallan 2002, p.176). A curious omission is death in war, from the legal killing of and by soldiers, to the horror underlying the euphemism of 'collateral damage'. Mallan goes on to note that children's books have 'contradictory approaches' (p.176) to the subject of death. As one may expect, many of these contradictions are not found in war stories for children, where there is an expectation of death, and violence. The possibilities range from picture books which may offer graphic images of the dead and dying to blunt descriptions of death on battlefields in fiction for young adult readers. Nevertheless in the texts where one may expect the brutality of death in war to be most explicit it is often shaped in unexpected ways.

Discourses of death in war need to be considered within the wider cultural and social contexts. There may be cultural inhibitions and lingering notions of the taboo or prohibited (Scutter 1996, 3) but more recent years have seen a proliferation of discourses dealing with many manifestations of death so that Mallan is able to note that death has been removed as a taboo of children's literature (Mallan 2002, p176). Nevertheless I would suggest that there is evidence of a lingering taboo in dealing with death in war stories, especially in those for older readers. This may be partly a function of the ambivalent nature of war stories; they are at best discourses of hope, or at least of knowledge, but are also texts which show the brutality and violence of death on a battle field or during war.

The increase of discourses dealing with death, violence or brutality in times of war, may be due to two factors. First there is a perception of a global increase of fields of war. This, in turn, may be dependent upon the second factor: the ready availability of images and information about war, from newspapers, histories of war events, and cinematic documentaries, to video games and, as I explore in this paper, fictional texts for children.

In war stories for children death is usually at one remove because children do not normally fight as soldiers. For the child in war time their position is usually that of the equivocal observer. This then reveals a basic problem of how to tell of the brutality of war, how to underline an apparent fundamental ideology of war stories for children; that is, to create a sense of anti-war ethos, when the child narrator and focaliser is not a combatant. Nevertheless it seems that war stories should, and do, attempt to show that war is about 'killing soldiers' and often others as well. But in so doing it is rarely this simple. There may be many reasons why this blunt and necessary aspect of war is re-shaped for the child reader; but in this paper I want to concentrate on the ways and means of this re-shaping.

There are several strategies and narrative techniques used to tell of violent death and killing in a time of war, so that these deaths are not too shocking to the sensibilities of young readers (or to the gate-keepers: their parents and teachers). The ambiguous position of death in war texts (there but not really there) is shown not only by the actual narratives but also by the presence of forewords, introductions, afterwords, authorial explanations and dedications, present in over 50% of the books read for this paper. These parts of the texts have three aims: first, to explain the historical veracity of the event being re-told, reinforcing the didactic sub text (knowledge of wars is important in forming an anti-war sensibility) which is present in every one of the texts; second, to show how important these past events still are, and the need to remember and memorialise; and third, in many cases, to account for the personal involvement or motivation of the writer. …