I've been meaning to read Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful ever since it came out but just never got around to it until this week. This novel charts the childhood of young Thomas Peaceful in the early years of the 20th century, and his eventual underage enlistment into the British army alongside his older brother to help fight in the First World War. More than anything else, this is a poignant story of childhood and war, and about the many life-changing effects a war has on those involved in it. It also reflects some of the brutality of the commanding regimes and the relentless squalor of trench warfare. This books is definitely not for the squeamish as Morpurgo tells the truth of life in the war as it really was.
The book opens at "Five Past Ten" (all the chapter titles are times) as "Tommo" Peaceful is recalling his childhood whilst waiting out the night on one of the First World War battlefields. He remembers his big brother Charlie taking him to school for his first day (and how much he didn't want to go), the tragica, accidental death of his father, his mother working hard to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table in spite of the grudging support of her husband's employer and Tommo's aunt. He remembers his brother Big Joe, who is called simple by some but who is very special to Tommo. He also recalls the only girl in his life, Molly, and how his brother Charlie took her away from him. But as the world turned to war, he was forced, like so many young men, to grow up fast. Charlie and Tommo enlist together and are sent to France almost immediately, to what could is most accurately described as hell on Earth. Bullets, bombs, death, shells, noise, dirt, disease, rats and stench fill their lives, and Charlie and Tommo fight for their lives and fight to stay together - facing certain death in the face every time they try to advance the British lines.
I won't tell you the twist at the end of this story, but it made me sob unrestrainedly to read the last few pages.