How many stories do you know of that deal with severe disfigurement and war injuries? This one! I promise it’s way, way better than the summary I just gave you.
Brothers Far From Home: The World War I Diary of Eliza Bates, Uxbridge, Ontario, 1916, Jean Little, 2003.
Now there aren’t a lot of books that cover the First World War with the grace and fluidity that this one does, and there’s vanishingly few other books that cover disfigurement and the postwar experience for a YA audience. I love Jean Little, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned many thousands of times before to anyone who will listen, and her own experience with disability really gives this book an aspect of gravity and beauty that I don’t know if it would have had otherwise.
This is a pretty heavy book (as are many First World War books, since as you know there was a great deal of death involved), but it manages to have its moments of comedy without going overboard with it. It’s a remarkably well done little bit of literature. Let’s get going.
Eliza is in the middle of seven children who belong to a minister and his wife in Uxbridge, which is actually not too super far from where I live (which has nothing to do with anything other than being a interesting fact for myself). You know, I feel like the trope of Lonely Middle Child has been somewhat abandoned in recent years, since families with a LOT of kids don’t show up in a lot of literature anymore. Eliza suffers from “not old enough to be with the older kids, too old to be with the little kids,” and has to share a room with her older sister Verity, whom she hates—mostly because Verity sees her as a little kid. It’s hard as an adult not to sympathize with Verity a bit, though—she’s seventeen and hanging out with their brother Jack, who is on his last leave before heading overseas, and his best friend Rufus, same. This is one of those things where as a kid, you’d be on fire with righteous indignation, but having been through the misery of your late teenage years, you completely, completely understand.
Eliza loves to read, and she’s particularly close to her oldest brother Hugo, who is at the front and makes Jack’s departure even harder since she’s losing both her older brothers. (There’s a set of eight-year-old twins, Charlie and Susannah, and their youngest sister, Belle, as well.) But Jack and Rufus leave on New Year’s Day of 1917, and the family has a couple of loose-end parishioners over to dinner to celebrate with them, which Eliza thinks doesn’t really fill up the empty table like her brothers would.
She doesn’t have a lot of friends, since she’s a bit of a loner, but there is a girl next door about her age, Cornelia. Unfortunately, Cornelia is boring and prefers embroidery to reading, and sickly and can’t go out much, and is generally kind of weedy and un-fun. Aw, I feel sorry for Cornelia. Eliza is not exactly a beacon of popularity herself, so this is a neat little example of the nerd-on-nerd hierarchy in the wild. Anyway, Cornelia also has an older brother, Richard, who is missing after the battle of the Somme, which you’d think would give them something to bond over but doesn’t.
Richard is eventually reported to be wounded, and Cornelia’s father goes over to England to be with him. Eliza is more concerned about their new dog, though, and doesn’t really give a thought to what they’re going through next door. All she hears is that his nerves have been destroyed by poison gas, but doesn’t stop to think what that means. When he does come home, Eliza is horrified and frightened by him—“I think he was handsome once. But his face is grey and it keeps grimacing as though he is in terrible pain. He shivers and stammers. Sometimes he shouts out words, and now and then he whispers, as though he is afraid someone is listening.” When Eliza complains to her mother about how she doesn’t understand how unfeeling Cornelia is about her brother, her mother tells her how harsh Cornelia’s father is on her, and how Eliza should be grateful for the life she has with parents and siblings whole and well and loving. It’s harsh.
In April of that year, the Canadians take Vimy Ridge, but while Eliza is proud, she’s also busy thinking about the school concert and how Verity bobbed her hair. It isn’t until two days later, when they receive the telegram that Hugo was at Vimy and is now missing, that she begins to worry in earnest. But as anyone who’s seen a war movie can tell you, Hugo is dead. Her whole family is numb with shock and grief, compounded by the fact that her father is a minister and they get a substantial amount of ghoulish mourners whose main motivation seems to be that they want to be seen publicly mourning the minister’s son. Then they get a letter from one of Hugo’s friends, saying that he was shot by a Canadian officer, who shot him after Hugo disobeyed his orders and went back into no-mans-land to help drag back a wounded comrade. Then the officer was shot himself. Their house is horrified and deadened by the news (common as though it was), and Jean Little does a terrific job of describing the emptiness and the dull horrible blank feeling that comes to mourners. It’s painfully, beautifully done.
Eliza’s father is “broken down” under the nervous strain and can’t preach, and stays in his room weeping all the time. Her mother tells Eliza that she’s sending her and the twins and Belle to their aunt Martha’s, for a visit and a rest, and when Eliza protests her mother tells her that she has to be strong for her younger siblings, who need her badly. Verity stays at home, to finish school and continue her Red Cross work, but the rest of them are packed off to Guelph (“the country”) on the train. Much to her surprise, Eliza finds herself missing Cornelia, whom she finds “restful” as a friend after her brother’s death, and she’s quite alarmed when she learns Cornelia has the measles and is very ill. But Eliza is soon distracted when Jack writes to ask Eliza to tell his old girlfriend, Nora, that he has a new English girlfriend—and Eliza does it. I wouldn’t have.
When the kids return to Uxbridge, Eliza finds her father and Cornelia both somewhat recovered, but the news is that Jack and Rufus are in love with the same girl—Rosemary, a nurse in England. They flip a coin to decide who will marry her, and Rufus wins—then they don’t hear from Jack for a while, so they have no idea what actually happened. Verity decides she’s going to train as a nurse, which creates another little firestorm at home when she moves out to live in the dorms and study, and leaves Eliza feeling even lonelier than before. When she finally hears from Jack, it’s only to say that Rufus and Rosemary married, and they’re all very busy. It isn’t until the end of October that they get another telegram saying Jack has been wounded and is in hospital.
The horrible truth is that Rufus’s plane crashed and he was killed, and Jack badly burned trying to pull him from the wreckage. A nurse writes from the hospital that he is in much pain and refuses to see anyone or talk to anyone, but he is recovering though slowly. Rosemary, of all people, writes to Eliza to ask her to convince Jack to let him see her, and it works (of all things). She writes back that he is recovering, and she will try to convince him to write back, but it’s slow going.
In January of the next year Cornelia and her family move away, leaving Eliza at odd ends for a friend again, and she writes very sporadically for a couple of months dealing with flu in the family. But in April, Eliza wakes up early early early one morning because she hears something in the house, creeps down to the porch, and finds a man on the floor asleep. “Then the man raised his head and I did scream long and loud. I was looking at some sort of monster.” It’s Jack, of course, and Eliza, weeping, tells him “You scared me. I thought you were a mon—tramp.” It’s awful. Burns can be so horrifyingly debilitating and scarring, and for Jack to come all the way home from England alone and be greeted by screams and terror—oh, it’s awful. It’s awful. Jack hisses that he’s married to Rosemary and they have a baby boy, but Eliza isn’t to tell anyone, and then the rest of the family barges in.
They learn that Rosemary and Rufus were married and she was pregnant, but when he died and Jack offered to marry her instead, Rosemary got cold feet and was afraid she would be a burden to Jack. Jack told her the real reason she was afraid was that she didn’t want to look at his ugly face all the time, but they made up and managed to get married after all and Rosemary had a boy—Rufus Hugh. Jack isn’t the same brother Eliza used to know—he’s angry and irritable and had nightmares and paces the floor, which frightens her almost more than his scars. Then Eliza gets a telegram from her aunt Martha that she is coming and bringing “guests from England,” and Eliza tries her best to keep it a secret but her mother ferrets it out of her.
Martha and Rosemary and the baby arrive the next day, making Eliza’s father nearly pass out from shock, and Jack equally surprised, but somehow they manage to all settle in together. Eliza takes up a good chunk of nursemaid duties, which she finds surprisingly to her liking, and then abandons her journal altogether for several months for camp and the Spanish Flu epidemic. The Armistice is announced, and a new family moves in next door with a daughter, Tamsyn, who is Eliza’s exact age and her new best friend.
Rating: A-/B+. I’m cheating and not giving an exact letter grade. All of this book is handled with a remarkably subtlety—there’s so much unsaid that it is a really wonderfully realistic picture of a family where important things aren’t discussed outright, but stay in the shadows and the quiet places of family discussions. I love how Jack’s injury is handled—and how Eliza is afraid of her brother at first, and how deeply affected the soldiers who return from the war are and how terribly the shell shock affects all of them. Jean Little does a wonderful job of portraying grief and loss, and it’s on display here in all its glory. The story picks up an awful lot of momentum towards the end and then sort of slacks off entirely for a few pages, so I would argue that the pacing is a bit back-heavy, but that’s not too awful. I think the biggest reason why the book didn’t get a straight-A rating from me is the sort of upsetting sense it gives the reader, the uneasy sense that there’s so much unsaid between all of the grief and depression and loss and confusion. It’s the mark of good writing, affecting a reader so much, but it’s a little unsettling to read it in a book targeted at eleven-year-olds. I like it a lot—but I would have loved to read an adult, no-holds-barred treatment of the same story from a different point of view.