Review Blog

Sep 29 2014

Loyal Creatures by Morris Gleitzman

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Viking, 2014. ISBN 9780670077427 pbk. ISBN 9781743480717 ebk.
(Age: Yr 4+) Like tens of thousands of other young lads in Australia in 1914, the first shots of what became known as The Great War (fired 100 years ago today), sparked a sense of adventure in fifteen year-old Frank Ballantyne. Having just lost his mother and currently helping his father find water and fix wells on others' properties, he is keen to find a more interesting life. 'Who wouldn't want to choof off to distant exotic places, give a pack of mongrel bullies what for and have the sort of experiences you just didn't get in the Cudgegong district?' But his father is adamant - they will not be joining the rush. Not just because Frank is too young, but because his dad had promised his mum that it wouldn't happen. And so, with their loyal horses Jimmy and Daisy, they continue to do vital work but it's not war work. Until, one evening they unwrap a beautifully decorated box which contains a white feather, the symbol of cowardice . . .
Amidst the plethora of books being released as the centennial commemoration of World War I gets under way, Morris Gleitzman has written a most sensitive story about a boy and his horse and the bond between them as they join the newly-formed Australian Light Horse Brigade and travel to Egypt. With a light hand and occasional splashes of the laconic Australian humour for which our soldiers are renowned, Gleitzman takes the reader through the war through the eyes of Frank. There is the death of his father, his friendships, his first confrontation with conflict, his self-doubt, his experiences of harsh military discipline, his unrequited love for Joan, daughter of she who sent the white feather, and above all, his bond with Daisy. Frank has an adventure in the desert campaigns of Egypt and Palestine but it is not the one that he imagined back in Cudgegong.
But the end of the war does not bring the end of the story. There is an inscription on a memorial in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens that reads, 'They suffered wounds, thirst, hunger and weariness almost beyond endurance and never failed. They did not come home.' This is quoted at the beginning of the book and raises the flag that this story might not have a happy-ever-after ending and it's for this reason that we, as teachers and parents, might need to be prepared for emotions and questions from young readers, maybe even offering some guidance as to who should borrow it. Knowing that this is a real story and thousands of horses suffered an unimaginable fate, even if Frank and Daisy themselves are fictitious, may prove difficult to handle for some, particularly those like Miss 10 who is in the horse-crazy stage.
Loyal Creatures began in 2012 when Gleitzman's friend Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse asked Gleitzman to create a performance piece as part of the program accompanying the opening of the stage version of War Horse and as he learned more about the Light Horse, he knew it had to become more than a 20-minute piece. This is a wonderful tribute to a part of our war history that is not as well known amongst our younger readers as the ANZAC legend and it has a significant place amongst the resources that we use to help them understand about this period in Australia's past and how it continues to shape our present.
Lest we forget.
Barbara Braxton

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