Stay where you are and then leave by John Boyne
Doubleday, 2013. ISBN 9780857532947.
(Age: 11+) Highly recommended. War, Home front, Shell shock. The day Alfie turns five is the day war starts in Europe. Alfie will never forget it and even though his family and a few neighbours celebrate that night, he will not celebrate another birthday for many years. Even worse, despite his father promising to stay with them, he joins up and leaves, mum having to become a nurse to earn some money, and then when that proves not to be enough, Alfie borrows their neighbour's precious shoeshine kit and sets himself up at King's Cross Station. Despite asking questions of his mother, he cannot learn anything about his father's whereabouts, and then his letters stop.
He shines the shoes of many men passing through on their way to work, but one day a doctor drops his folder, and helping him pick all the papers, Alfies spies his father's name, and the hospital where he is staying.
He determines to go and help him get back home. Here he finds an utterly changed man and convinced that he will do better at home, surrounded by those who love him, determines to help him get there.
Behind the story of Alfie and his family, we see World War One and its impact on those at home, their privation, their efforts to make ends meet, the suspicion amongst people who have been neighbours for years, the impact of a white feather, the arrival of military police at the door.
Through Alfie's nine year old eyes, we are privy to the cruelty of war and its imposition on millions of people, and the questions that remain unanswered. Alfie and his family are part of the street where their friends live and the impact of the war is felt by all as Boyne cleverly shows the ranges of effects on a variety of people. We see those for whom war is a fight to be fought, women sending their husbands off, while others want them to remain home. There are the older men who see it as a glorious thing, the conscientious objector who refuses to kill, those who beat him up for his views while others nurse the ones who return with shell shock, an unknown disease, one thought to be another word for cowardice.
This multi-layered story reminds the readers that war is made up of ordinary people, and it is their lives which are disrupted and overturned by policies made by others far removed. I was struck by the way that Boyne, author of The boy in the striped pyjamas, covered so many other facets to war, the growing independence of women, the call for Suffrage, the development of psychiatric nursing, rationing, the impact of war on the rail and so on, all making a fascinating background to a thoroughly involving story.