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It is 1917 and the Great War is a jagged scar across the face of Europe. Soldiers cower in mud-filled trenches, hurling bullets across the war-torn landscape. Above them flies 17-year-old New Zealander, Bob Sunday of the Royal Flying Corps. Before long, Bob finds himself flying against the great German air aces, including the infamous Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen, as their warplanes whirl above the battlefields of Arras, Passchendaele and Cambrai.
This is the fourth book in the popular Kiwis at War series.
I have read the first three books in this series so had been looking forward to reading this one - and I have to say, I think it is the best so far. I found that I could not put the book down; Bob, the hero of the story, is the same age as many of the high school students I teach today - and it is amazing to read about the maturity and heroism of so young a person who should never have had to face the reality of war and battle carnage. But those were the realities of war - young people were sent off to fight for their country when they should have still been enjoying their teenage years. Sadly, many of them did not make it back home. And many more sustained terrible injuries which affected them for the rest of their lives.
I found the style of the book compelling. It is told in the first person by young Bob, and reading between the lines I could tell just how quickly he had to grow up and how deeply affected he was by the deaths of those around him. Having lost his brother and assumed his identity so he could join the Royal Flying Corps as an observer - with the aim of eventually becoming a fully-fledged pilot - he experienced serious injury, institutional bullying, and the realities of air battle all within the first days of arriving at the 48 Squadron HQ. The dating of each chapter so it looks like a diary entry shows just how quickly events unfolded.
The battle scenes and the unbelievable casualty count are described in graphic detail; the shock value is not played down for its target readers (young adults) and I would agree with this: it is important that the horror of war is made clear to young people while they are still learning to make informed decisions. There are times when the sheer adrenalin rush of Bob's aerial gymnastics make them appear like a gloried computer shoot-'em-up but then the reality hits as a plane goes down and with it a mate that might have been socialising with Bob only hours beforehand.
The inclusion in the book of a glossary of acronyms and other war-related terminology, a referential timeline of the events, author's notes on the real (as opposed to fictional) characters, and archive photographs of the Bristol Fighter and Sopwith Camel aircraft (as flown by Bob) and the Fokker Dc1 flown by the Red Baron all helps to authenticate the story. Although this is a work of fiction, it is based on real events and experiences and is a sobering reminder of just how much members of the armed forces had to go through in order to defend their countries. As a New Zealander, Bob is typical of many young people (mainly boys) who had to leave their homes and join forces with the British and other allies overseas.
This book should be compulsory reading for all teenagers, both boys and girls. It provides a strong message about the evils of war and the way that technology can be used for both good and bad. I would like to see it available on the bookshelf of every secondary school.
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