October 16, 2012

A Call to Battle: The War of 1812, Alexander MacKay, Upper Canada, 1812

by Gillian Chan
Scholastic Canada
195 pp.
Ages 8-12
September, 2012

When the War of 1812 began, Alexander "Sandy" MacKay was only 13 years old, and helping on the family farm near Ancaster.  As clearly as he hears A Call To Battle, determined to join his father and older brother, Angus, in the militia, Sandy is instructed to stay behind with his mother, three younger siblings and two older sisters.  So begins Sandy's recount as he looks back on the events that have lead him to his current journey to Pennsylvania in 1820.

While 1812 progresses from the president's declaration of war in June through to the victory at Queenston, the loss of General Brock and the Yankees' fear of Tecumseh, Sandy knows little of battle experiences except as recounted to him by those returning home.  When his father is stricken with a debilitating case of gaol's fever, as is Angus but less severely, Sandy is disappointed to hear few details about heroic deeds and the glory of war.  He sees shame in the retreat of the British when the Americans capture York in the spring of 1813 and cowardice in his new brother-in-law, Eric, who does not go to war.  Regardless how his father urges him not to be so quick to judge and to look for vain glory, Sandy pursues opportunities to engage in the War.

As the War of 1812 moves into 1814, Sandy finds himself on the outskirts and then in the midst of battles, and sees the reality of war.  His enlightenment is slow but sure, seeing the death toll and drudgery of moving and burying the dead, and then the horror of death in both the British and American ranks.  He may finally experience the reality of war as he craves but Sandy can see beyond his initial expectations and ...
"cried for shattered dreams of glory and adventure that had ended with a bloody, broken boy in a wood. I cried for oblivion ..." (pg. 152)
A Call to Battle is an exceptional edition in Scholastic Canada's I am Canada series.  In any novel of historical fiction, there is the danger of emphasizing the historically-accurate events and characters rather than the story elements, particularly plot.  Gillian Chan's research and poignant emphasis on Sandy MacKay's perspective of the War of 1812, not the detailed events documented in the history textbooks, takes the book from a dry read of a military action to a compassionate look at how boys and young men may see the glory of war, that is, until experienced first-hand.  By allowing Sandy to experience war by dealing first with the dead and injured, then running errands and finally pressed into assisting the surgeon in amputating limbs, rather than just engaging in combat, Gillian Chan has made the War of 1812 in A Call to Battle more of the setting rather than the plot, enabling the reader to see the commonality of young men seeking glory from all manner of military action, be it war, battle, skirmish or attack, defense or offense.  Alexander MacKay's story could be set during World War I, the Boer War, the Seven Years' War or the War of 1812 because the lessons he learns and incorporates are universal.  Sadly, the lessons learned always seem to come after exposure to the conflict, rather than before it.  I can only hope that there are some young people who, after reading A Call to Battle, are moved to rethink their attitudes about war and weaponry and power, hopefully before first-hand experiences destroy more than just their false impressions.

1 comment:

  1. This isn't one to which I'd've naturally gravitated, but your review has convinced me to give it a try: thanks for the nudge!