Sunday, 11 November 2012

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo

I read this for the first time a week or so ago.  I'd like to say it was out of reverence to the time of year, but actually it was because most of my Year 8s are reading it in English, and were bringing their homework to their homework catch-up session.  It was quite challenging to help them answer questions like "how does the relationship between Molly and Tommo change during the course of the novel" when I hadn't actually read the book!

I was reminded of the book earlier today though when I sat during the Remembrance Day service, and then later at home as we sat in silence at 11am.  In fact it was all I could think about.  The evocation of the trench warfare in the novel is completely heart-breaking.  Iconic.  Like the famous scene from Blackadder, the beauty of it lies in the fact that we are made to care very deeply for the characters.  The novel has a time-split narrative, so we become intimately acquainted with the home life of the family away from the killing fields.

There is a twist in the tale, which makes it almost more heartbreaking than it appears to be.  Yes, it's fiction, but, as in War Horse, we know that there were incidents like this.  There were many Private Peacefuls.  I thought of them today, and felt guilty that they were made to suffer for us.  Private Peaceful helped me to be grateful in a very concrete sense.

I read a criticism of the novel which argues that the monologue depicting the past is overly descriptive and therefore unrealistic.  I think an internal stream-of-consciousness narrative depicting the same sequence of events would be extremely moving and challenging, but almost certainly not as likely to grab the attention of your average young person.   It serves a different purpose - as a fable from which we can learn about some of the many horrors of war, rather than an exercise in narrative and form.

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