Scoop Review of Books

Boys at War

Book Review
Good Sons: A Novel of the Great War, by Greg Hall (Mary Egan Publishing, $32)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

good_sons_cover“She’s a wonderful woman, she gave three sons to the war.” So I recall an elderly relative saying about her neighbour when I was a child. Anzac Day was “to remember the glorious dead”. The gory-ish dead, more like it. We all know WW1 was not a pretty place. Other writers have told stories, and now Greg Hall has told it from a local viewpoint. The first half  of the book is set in New Zealand, showing how we were experiencing the world situation at that time.

The three good sons of this historical novel’s title are those who have volunteered, one by one, each in their own time, for their own reasons; Tom, Robert and Frank step up to the mark to save us from “the hun”. And to save themselves from public censure, stressful home life or to see the world. It’s made clear that you would be labelled a shirker if you didn’t enlist. And conscientious objectors were mostly shunned – or worse. It must have been curious for boys raised in a church-going society with “thou shalt not kill” to learn that they were expected to do so.

Most of us have someone in our families lost in WW1; mine was a great-uncle who died on the beach at Gallipoli helping bury slaughtered Australian soldiers. I have the necklace he sent my mother from Cairo; it arrived several months after news of his death. This happened  with letters sent to parents by their dead sons too. Hall draws on his own Oamaru family history along with thorough research into New Zealand’s involvement, and the boys and men who went from all parts of the country to assist the allies in their horrific quest for “peace in our time”. His disclosure of the futile horrors and day-to-day endurance of the warring action is in strong contrast to the earlier lives of these young lads growing up in the structured but carefree world of home, school and outdoors in peaceful Oamaru.

Good Sons is structured but not carefree. Chapters are introduced with New Zealand newspaper reports from summer 1914 through to spring 1917, and these don’t make pretty reading. Chilling words such as the reporting of the Governor General’s reiteration on Parliament steps that “war had broken out with Germany. This announcement was followed by cheers and the singing of the national anthem”. Further reporting includes: “the fact that men who could play such fine football were naturally quick, fine fighters with the bayonet… and enables them always to bayonet many Germans – it enables them to get their stab in first”; and “The guns are being heard in London 150 miles distant, windows and crockery are vibrating in Kent and Sussex and a faint thudding can be heard in Harrow.”

Ex banker, and director of the Passchendaele Society, Hall is an avid reader who, when travelling, “ prefers the emotion of a war grave cemetery” than to “wander in the  Louvre”. Writing poetry about these emotions was the precursor to the completion of this book, and a poem of Hall’s is woven into the narrative. As he says, “my writing style is naturally very plain and from the heart.”