July 15, 2014

Soldier Doll

by Jennifer Gold
Second Story Press
256 pp.
Ages 13-18
March 2014

One doll. Five wars. Many hearts touched.

A summer yard sale doll, with a cherubic face and a soldier's uniform, is the quirky birthday gift fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Bryant picks up for her dad, an engineer shipping out with the military to Afghanistan in a few weeks.  Just recently relocated to Toronto from Vancouver, Elizabeth goes to check out the neighbourhood and wanders into a bookstore where she meets Evan, an older teen who works there.  Talking books, Elizabeth and Evan learn they share an appreciation for author Margaret Merriweather's work, and he introduces Elizabeth to her poetry, including her famous poem, "The Soldier Doll." 

As Elizabeth delves into the poem, she discusses the possibility that the doll of which Margaret Merriweather wrote may in fact be the doll she purchased for her father.  While the reader will know this to be true from the historical anecdotes involving the soldier doll that are interspersed in Elizabeth's narrative, the teen, her parents and Evan set out to discover the mystery of the doll, looking into its provenance and journey to the Toronto yard sale where it was found.

The little soldier doll, originally a girl's keepsake after the loss of her mother, is shared years later with her fiancé as he heads to France in 1918.  Though the soldier doll is thought to be lucky by his fellow soldiers, it begins the next step of its journey when the young man is killed and the doll ends up in an antique shop in Germany.  Without spoiling the story, suffice it to say that the soldier doll is present when Jewish people were being rounded up in Berlin, when the Red Cross comes to assess the conditions at the concentration camp at Terezín in Czechoslovakia, when young American soldiers seek the Viet Cong in Da Nang, Vietnam, and after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 when the war on terrorism begins.

Almost a century of history is witnessed by the unusual wooden doll, privy to secrets and shared fears, watching death, destruction, kindness and hope all twisted together.  With Elizabeth and her family endeavouring to learn its complete story, Jennifer Gold is able to bring the Soldier Doll home, both in the story and with her writing.  Wrapping all that history in a mystery makes for an intriguing read.  While I thought that Elizabeth's dad knowing an archaeologist/historian was a tad convenient, I realize that with his history (pun intended) of seeing the fantastic amongst his yard sale finds he'd probably reached out to everyone and anyone who could verify them as authentic.  And in a story where a doll is able to reach across time and place and work magic on those who held it, I think that coincidences may be more fortuitous than contrived.

Jennifer Gold is very astute in using the doll as the focus for discussions of life and death, war and peace, and responsibility and honour.  Even as the narrative moves from World War I to World War II and ultimately to the recent war in Afghanistan, I wondered about those who enlisted or were drafted and went to war under a banner of duty or compassion, and ultimately had to face the horrors and tragedy of war.  The wars that the soldier doll witnesses may have different names and locations but those who live and die through them are always the same.
"I wasn't sure what the right thing to do was.  I don't think the right thing was that clear.  I guess it never is, not in a war, really." (pg. 263)
Not much has changed.  But, just as history is apparently told by the victors, the Soldier Doll lives on because of those who endured or lived long enough to share its story. And though one veteran acknowledges that, "It's hard to be the one who lives" (pg. 265), the living are critical in keeping those who passed alive.  Just like the soldier doll does.

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