Why John Wilson remembers
We asked prolific author John Wilson why books about war are so important. He would know.
November 11th, 2014
For his honeymoon, the Wilsons spent much of their time visiting war memorials in Europe.
Much of John Wilson’s time in the last year has been spent living in the wartime past. He has been preparing his World War One book for republication, And in the Morning: Fields of Conflict—The Somme, 1916 (Heritage House), researching a series of WWI novels, Tales of War (Doubleday) and reading original soldiers’ diaries at the Canadian War Museum for an upcoming non-fiction book (Tundra), as well as writing a blog to mark the anniversary of World War One.
In his new series for young adults, Wilson imagines the bloody trenches of WWI through the eyes of 15-year-old Jim Hay for And In the Morning: Fields of Conflict—The Somme. As a boy, he impatiently waits for the day he can join the men, march off to war and fight for his country. To Jim, war will be a glorious adventure filled with acts of courage and heroic quests. When his big moment for enlistment arrives, following his father’s death in battle and his mother’s nervous breakdown, Jim leaps at the opportunity. And In the Morning reveals how naïve dreams of glory can quickly be obliterated by the ugliness and death at the core of war’s reality. Jim’s longing for adventure is quickly replaced by a battle to survive.
Here is what John Wilson told us:
The other day I was having a phone conversation with a publisher concerning an upcoming non-fiction book on WWI. We were talking about possible publication dates to tie in with significant anniversaries and eventually came to a conclusion. “Okay,” I said, “the spring of 1917 should work well.”
There was a silence on the other end of the line. This wasn’t the only time that I recently got dates wrong by 100 years. I don’t have some strange form of historical Alzheimers. The problem is my obsession with history, and WWI in particular.
I was born only 33 years after the end of the Great War. While I was growing up in Scotland, the mutilated survivors of that war, many only in their fifties and sixties, were a very visible part of the cultural landscape, but I paid little attention to them. My heroes growing up were from a more recent war: Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain, Commandoes storming enemy beaches, escaped POWs, and spies eluding Gestapo torturers in occupied Europe.
It was only when I began reading war memorials that I realized there was something different about this older war.
Every little village in the west of Scotland has its war memorial. They were erected in the 1920s and 30s and range from a bronze soldier to a plain column. The plinth at the base usually has “Lest We Forget 1914-1918” carved on the front and this is followed by a list of names, often 30 or more, commemorating the young men from the surrounding area who went to war and never returned. On the back there is sometimes a similar, more recent carving memorializing the dead from the war my heroes fought in—but it usually only has two or three names carved on it.
Even to my teenage mind, there was something very different about this first war. I began reading about it and gradually realized the huge cultural impact that war had. In some cases, the names on the fronts of the memorials represented 1 in 5 or 6 of the young men from that area. For these villages, and for Europe in general, these losses and the manner in which they occurred, were an almost unimaginable catastrophe. Everything changed because of what was recorded on those memorials. Before 1914 was history, a ghostly world of memory hardly more real than the Renaissance, after it was recognizable as the world I, and you, live in.
On my honeymoon, my wife realized what she had signed up for when I took her on a cycling tour of the Somme battlefields and pointed out encouragingly which wood the soldiers of 1916 had marched from and where the machine-guns that slaughtered them had been placed. Since then I have dragged my family up mountains to examine Cathar castles in France, trudged up Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, and stood on countless hilltops imagining battles, both vast and small, ebbing and flowing around me. But, because of those village memorials from my childhood, I always return to the Somme, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Arras, Amiens, Verdun.
I want to travel in time, to visit the lost world of 1914 and experience the events that destroyed it and created my world of today. That’s what I spend my life trying to do. Every story I write is more than just a book for other people to read, it is an attempt to recapture the past in my mind, to travel in time, and for the reader, I hope, an invitation to join me on my journey.
I have travelled to the First World War four times so far and I have more trips planned. Each time I go to somewhere different and somewhere other people rarely go.
My first journey was And in the Morning, published by KidsCan Press in 2003 and reissued in 2014 by Heritage House. In many ways, it is my personal favourite. The cover of the original edition featured the face of my wife’s great uncle, an eighteen-year-old boy who died at the battle of Loos on September 25, 1915. And in the Morning is also a diary, based on many actual diaries researched in the Imperial War Museum in London, but ultimately my diary, or at least the one I might have written as a teenager between 1914 and 1916.
My second fictional journey was Shot at Dawn (Scholastic’s I am Canada Series, 2011) and it deals in more depth with issues touched on in And in the Morning, mainly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Shell Shock as it was called back then. It is also a diary of sorts, the memories of a young soldier, Allan McBride, in 1918 as he waits in a shed the night before he is due to be executed for cowardice.
Then, in Wings of War (book 1 in Doubleday’s Tales of War Series), I visited the flyers in WWI, not Billy Bishop and the Red Baron, but the early fliers of 1915 and 1916. These were some of the boys who learned to fly in homemade aircraft on prairie farms in 1913 and 1914, and who, when they went to war, had to struggle with the uncertain technology as much as the enemy.
Book 2 in the Tales of War Series, Dark Terror, will be published in 2015 and tells the story of a young Newfoundland miner digging tunnels deep beneath the enemy trenches. Book 3 has no name yet and the journey is not yet complete, but it will tell of a young Belgian nurse recruited into spying for the Allies.
Not all my trips back are fiction, Desperate Glory: The Story of WWI (Dundurn, 2008) is non-fiction. With the extensive use of historic photographs, sidebars and short explanatory texts segments, it does exactly what the title promises, tells the story of the war.
My newest project is different, because for the first time it is not primarily my journey. Tentatively titled, An Artist’s War: The Illustrated WWI Diary of Russell Hughes Rabjohn (Tundra) it is the book that I told my publisher should come out in 1917. Rabjohn was a draughtsman and drew what he experienced between 1916 and 1919. He also kept five volumes of written diary and it is my job to combine these elements to tell his story, not mine.
I have come to understand and learned to live with my obsession. No, that’s not true, I love my obsession, I embrace it and I am eternally grateful that I have lived long enough to see the 100th anniversary of my favourite piece of history. Over the next four years I can wallow in my obsession, give it free rein and not appear too out of place. Welcome to 1914.
Born in Edinburgh in 1951, John Wilson, grew up on the Isle of Skye and in Paisley, near Glasgow. He now lives on Vancouver Island where he has written 39 books for both young adults and adults.
And In the Morning: 978-1-772030-14-3 $12.95
Wings of War: 978-0-385-67830-8
Visit John Wilson at: the-war-to-end-wars.blogspot.ca
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on August 2, 1951, John Wilson, author of approximately forty books, grew up on the Island of Skye and in Paisley, near Glasgow. His parents had lived most of their lives in India. He earned his Honours B.Sc. in Geology from St. Andrew’s University and went to work for the Geological Survey of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Unwilling to consider military service there, he eventually resettled in Calgary, working in gas and oil exploration. In 1986, as a geologist in Edmonton, he decided he wasn’t travelling enough, so he sold his sports car, took a leave of absence and began to travel around the world, His grand tour took him to Japan, Thailand, Egypt, Greece, Italy, France and Spain. When he returned home, he had difficulty readjusting to the routine of a regular work schedule. A feature article he had sold to The Globe and Mail sparked a desire to write, so he quit his job and became a full-time freelance writer. From 1995 to 2003, Wilson published 16 titles, including one adult novel. He also published more than 300 feature articles and essays, 30 poems and numerous book reviews. Wilson has taught English at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo and gives readings and workshops at schools and conferences across Canada. He specializes in making history come alive for kids.
In Wilson’s Flames of the Tiger (Kids Can 2003 $7.95), a German teenager seduced by the pomp of Hitler’s rise is called upon to fight. With Berlin in ruins and the Russian army on its way, he helps a badly wounded Canadian soldier, telling the man his life story to help keep him conscious. As dawn breaks, the soldier recovers and helps Dieter and his sister survive. Details in Flames of the Tiger—like flaming horses running in terror and a soldier’s description of Belsen—are not for the squeamish.“It is not my intention to apologize for the Nazis,” says Wilson. “They, and particularly the SS, richly deserve the abhorrence that the civilized world feels for the values they held and the atrocities they committed. What I have tried to do is imagine what it was like for those who came of age in the 1930s and ‘40s, indoctrinated from earliest days and swept up in circumstances they could never understand. To have been a teenager in Nazi Germany must have been immensely difficult, and to expect one to have had a rational post-war perspective is unreasonable. The lure of uniforms and flags and the flood of propaganda must have been next to irresistible. Dieter is probably exceptional for questioning as much as he does.” Wilson says if there’s an underlying message for his adventure story, it’s to always question what people tell you is a self-evident truth, especially when everyone tells you the same thing.
Set during the American Civil War, The Flags of War (2004) concerns two cousins, one American and one Canadian. As the son of a plantation owner, Nate McGregor fights for the South; whereas his cousin Walt in Canada opposes slavery. When a Confederate ship named the Trent, with British envoys aboard, is seized by the Union, Britain and her colonies are on the verge of joining the American Civil War and fighting for Dixie–and this puts Canada in danger of an invasion from the Union Army. The lives of the cousins become linked by a runaway slave named Sunday from Nate’s father’s plantation. John Wilson’s sequel Battle Scars (2005) occurs after the Battle of Shiloh when both Sunday and Walt, who have both re-enlisted, meet Nate at the Libby prison in Virginia where Nate is a guard. Under these grim circumstances, the guard, the prisoner and the slave must reconcile their personal, political and racial differences.
Set during the battle and siege of Stalingrad during 1942-1942, Four Steps to Death (Kidscan $19.95) revisits the horrific encounter between the troops (and egos) of Hitler and Stalin. The 229-day impasse resulted in more than one million deaths and was a crucial turning point in World War II, after which the Germans never won a major battle. John Wilson revisits the city now known as Volgograd through the experiences of a German tank commander, a patriotic Russian soldier and an eight-year-old boy named Sergei who tries to survive in the rubble. In an afterword, Wilson notes the starving and freezing remnants of the German army under Field Marshall von Paulus finally surrendered on February 2,1943. “The dead were burned in piles on the open steppe and the survivors marched off to a captivity from which few returned,” he writes. The Battle of Stalingrad remains under-acknowledged in the West because American, British and Canadian troops did not participate.
Having introduced numerous young protagonists who are caught within complex political situations aboard, John Wilson brought his formula for educational and engaging Young Adult fiction closer to home with Red Goodwin (Ronsdale $9.95), an introduction to the life and times of labour leader Ginger “Red” Goodwin, the Socialist folk hero who was forced to seek refuge in the woods around the coal mining community of Cumberland. After his father is killed in World War I, young Will Ryan is sent to live with his uncle, a mine manager at Cumberland. Will Ryan’s chance meeting with the outlaw Red Goodwin in the forest prompts him to consider the legitimacy of the miners’ unionist activities and Goodwin’s radical view that the conflict between Britain and Germany has capitalist origins. Along the way Will befriends a Chinese boy and learns about racism, and he falls in love with a beautiful Scottish girl whose family is helping Goodwin survive in the woods.
In The Alchemist’s Dream, John Wilson revisits Henry Hudson’s doomed quest to discover a northwest passage to the Far East. In this story, the Nonsuch returns to London in 1669 with a load of fur and the lost journal of the missing explorer Hudson who disappeared in 1611. “In the hands of a greedy sailor, the journal is merely an object to sell,” according to the publisher’s promo material. “But for Robert Bylot — a once-great maritime explorer — the book is a painful reminder of a past he’d rather forget. As Bylot relives his memories of a plague-ridden city, of the mysterious alchemist John Dee, and of mutiny in the frozen wastes of Hudson Bay, an age-old mystery is both revealed and solved.”
Shot at Dawn (Scholastic, 2011) is the World War I tale of a soldier named Allan McBride, who has fought in some of the war’s bloodiest battles and seen his best friend killed, but now stands accused of desertion and may face death by firing squad.
Written in Blood (Orca 2010) is the first installment of the Desert Legends Trilogy re-examining the legend about the infamous American outlaw known as Billy the Kid. In the second novel, Ghost Moon, Wilson follows young James Doolen’s story after he discovers the terrible truth about his father in Written in Blood. According to publicity materials, “The year is 1878, and young Jim is not yet ready to return to Canada. Instead he heads up to New Mexico in hopes of finding work and building a life. On the way he meets Bill Bonney (later to be known as Billy the Kid), who takes him to a ranch south of the town of Lincoln, where they both find work as cowboys. Little does Jim know that he is about to get caught up in a vicious battle for the lucrative army contracts with nearby Fort Stanton. As the violence explodes around him, Jim becomes a helpless witness to cold-blooded murder and watches as Bill swears revenge and leads a gang of killers into the hills. However hard he tries, Jim can’t escape the violence and is finally drawn into its bloody conclusion on the streets of Lincoln.”
In Wilson’s third installment, Victorio’s War (Orca $12.95), Jim is an army scout in a war to force Victorio’s Apaches onto a reservation, far from their traditional lands. Captured by his nemesis Ghost Moon and forced to flee with an Apache band of warriors, Jim is only saved from a slow and torturous death when his old friend Wellington adopts him as his son. Will he be branded a traitor? Or killed in a battle with the 10th US Cavalry or the Mexican Army? There’s a mini-series in here somewhere, perhaps to be called Divided Loyalties.
Wilson’s Failed Hope (Dundurn, 2012) links with two previous books, Desperate Glory (Napoleon, 2008) and Bitter Ashes (Napoleon, 2010), covering the history of the 20th century from 1914 to 1945.
A dinosaur dig on farmland owned by the hippie-ish mother of teenager Sam unearths more trouble than anyone bargained for in John Wilson’s Bones (Orca Currents 2013), for reluctant readers. Set in the Alberta badlands, near Drumheller, it offers surprisingly sophisticated dialogue and a frighteningly intelligent girlfriend named Annabel who often makes Sam feel inadequate. Ever-prolific, Wilson simultaneously refined contents from his adult book on the doomed Franklin Expedition for a junior audience version with Graves of Ice: The Lost Franklin Expedition, George Chambers The Northwest Passage, 1845 (Scholastic 2014).
In Broken Arrow (Orca $10.95) Steve’s plan for a relaxing vacation under the Spanish sun with his friend Laia, ends abruptly when he receives an email from his brother linking their grandfather to shadowy international plots involving nuclear bombs. Was Steve’s grandpa a cold war era spy? In a desperate attempt to find out, Steve and Laia crack mysterious codes, confront violent Russian mobsters, dodge spies, unearth a bomb and avoid nudists. The deeper they look, the more Steve begins to wonder, whose side was Grandpa on?
Wilson knows his history and he knows his storytelling. Somebody should have been Wilson a literary prize by now. Then again, he’s clearly not a hobnobber over there on Vancouver Island.
ARRIVAL IN BRITISH COLUMBIA: 1991
CITY OF RESIDENCE: Lantzville
EMPLOYMENT OTHER THAN WRITING: occasional teaching
AWARDS: Shortlisted for Sheila A. Egoff Award, Geoffrey Bilson and Norma Fleck Awards
And In the Morning: Fields of Conflict—The Somme, 1916 (Heritage House 2014) $12.95 978-1-772030-14-3
Broken Arrow – The Seven Sequels (Orca 2014) $10.95 9781459805408
Wings of War (Doubleday 2014) $12.99 978-0-385-67830-8
Bones (Orca 2014) $9.95 9781459806986
Graves of Ice: The Lost Franklin Expedition, George Chambers The Northwest Passage, 1845 (Scholastic 2014) $14.99 978-1-4431-0794-5
Stolen (Orca 2013) $9.95 978-1-4598-0375-6
Victorio’s War (Orca, 2012) $12.95 9781554698820
Lost Cause (Orca, 2012) $9.95 9781554699445
Failed Hope (Dundurn, 2012) $18.99 978-1459703452
Victorio’s War (Orca 2012) $12.95 9781554698820 (Wilson’s 32nd title for juveniles, teens and adults)
Ghost Moon (Orca 2011). $12.95 978-1-551469-270-5
Shot at Dawn (Scholastic, 2011) 978-0-545-98595-6 $14.99
Written in Blood (Orca, 2010)
Grail: The Heretic’s Secret, Book II (Key Porter, 2010)
Bitter Ashes: The Story of WWII (Napoleon, 2010)
And in the Morning (Key Porter, 2010, previously published by Kids Can Press, 2003)
Crusade: The Heretic’s Secret, Book 1 (Key Porter, 2009)
Death on the River (Orca, 2009)
Ghost Mountains and Vanished Oceans: North America from Birth to Middle-Age, with Ron Clowes (Key Porter, 2009)
Lost in Spain (Key Porter, 2009, previously published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2000)
Where Soldiers Lie (Key Porter, 2008)
Desperate Glory: The Story of WWI (Napoleon, 2008)
The Alchemist’s Dream (Key Porter, 2007)
Where Soldiers Lie (Key Porter, 2006)
Red Goodwin (Ronsdale Press, 2006)
Four Steps to Death (Kids Can Press, 2005)
Battle Scars (Kids Can Press, 2005)
The Flags of War (Kids Can Press, 2004)
Dancing Elephants and Floating Continents: The Story of Canada Beneath Your Feet (Key Porter, 2003)
Flames of the Tiger (Kids Can Press, 2003)
Adrift in Time (Ronsdale, 2003)
Discovering the Arctic: The Story of John Rae (Napoleon. 2003)
Ghosts of James Bay (Beach Holme, 2001, now available through Dundurn)
Righting Wrongs: The Story of Norman Bethune (Napoleon, 2001)
John Franklin: Traveller on Undiscovered Seas (XYZ, 2001, now available through Dundurn)
Norman Bethune: A Life of Passionate Conviction (XYZ, 1999, now available through Dundurn)
North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1999)
Weet Alone (Napoleon, 1999)
Weet’s Quest (Napoleon, 1997)
Across Frozen Seas (Beach Holme, 1997, now available through Dundurn)
Weet (Napoleon, 1995)
— by Alan Twigg