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A Soldier, A Dog and a Boy is a beautifully illustrated book by Phil Lesnie, for a thoughtful story by well-known author, Libby Hathorn.
The soldier, a mule driver, likes to draw. Before he can get very far with his mascot, he meets a skinny boy, who claims the dog.
This book has quite a dose of reality. The details of the Australian soldier’s uniform are accurate. There is mention of the rats, the poor food, the noise. Sepia coloured watercolours depict the ruined villages and the deforested landscapes with its endless mud.
There is a charming painting of a ship leaving a quay as the boys headed off for the great adventure. The young soldier uses expressions like ‘Blimey’. When our soldier is talking of the ANZACS there are Sikhs in the group. The scarlet of the Flanders poppy is scattered through the book, as it is still today.
The books soft humour would appeal to a child. When the soldier gives the commands to sit, fetch and roll over the dog looks puzzled but does those things when commanded by the boy, Jacques, in French.
Jacques is an orphan who will not go to an orphanage because the orphanage will not take Victoire, his dog. However, knowing the dog will be well cared for; he sacrifices his own companionship and gives the dog to the soldier.
But the soldier turns after a few moments, and takes the boy, too.
This story is based on Hathorn’s family experience and a photo in archives of a soldier holding open a sack to reveal a young orphaned boy who had been smuggled back to Australia.
This brings me to an interesting question: What do we tell our young children about the First World War. By primary school, they have learnt about Anzac Day and have associated it with ‘heroes’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘freedom’.
There is another side: the most common cause of hospitalization was STDs, soldiers suffered post-traumatic stress and sometimes could not take up civilian life again. The numbers of the dead and injured who went ‘over the top’ are beyond imagining until you see the fields of cemeteries.
This book provides an indication that there is a dark side to war in this simple story of a boy and his dog. The beautiful illustrations can lead to discussion at a suitable level; this is a sensitively told story.
In this age of refugees, this is one story of hope and goodness.
A Soldier, A Dog and a Boy (published by Hachette Australia) is available from Dymocks: