The Good Son by Pierre-Jacques Ober

cover image

Illus. by Jules Ober and Felicity Coonan. Candlewick Studio, 2019. ISBN: 9781536204827.
(Age: Upper primary +) Highly recommended. Themes: War, Patriotism, military history, toy soldiers. A story from the First World War told in miniature as the sub-title suggests this beautiful picture book re-creates realistic scenes from the First World War using miniature soldiers. Also it tells the story of the little soldiers in the Great War, caught up in a conflict where they joined as patriots, to make their families proud but as the war progressed it became clear they were pawns in a larger game. The monochrome images of the war torn countryside and the narrative ribbon stating the bleak facts about WW1 bring us to young Pierre, locked up in a barn. What unfolds is his story from when the world had colour, with emphasis on the red white and blue of the French flag. He joined up to stop the Germans, and marched through the beautiful countryside dreaming of glory but when they finally saw battle 'we won . . . it was terrible.' Pierre has a friend, Gilbert, who stands by him throughout. When the Colonel comes and tells Pierre he will be shot for desertion it is Gilbert who brings him food and companionship. His commanding officer is sympathetic but tells Pierre morale is low so he is to be made an example of to deter others from walking away. Pierre's crime? To slip away for three days to be with his mother over Christmas. He writes a letter to his mother recounting an incident where he was commended for bravery he felt he didn't earn, whereas he is to be shot for desertion for wanting to spend two days with his mother. He promises to wear the socks she gave him 'Maman those were the best two days of the war.' Gilbert comes before dawn bringing food and comfort and he talks of a younger brother killed in the first week of the war. Gilbert promises to deliver the letter to Pierre's mother.
In a note from the author we learn that the idea of using WW1 figurines to create a series of images was originally a gift for his father's 80th birthday and the centenary of the start of WW1. The project 'developed into an homage to all the men who fulfilled their patriotic duty unprepared for the horror unleashed upon them'.
A highly recommended but harrowing story that would make an excellent history teaching aid for upper primary or middle school students, younger students might need to read this with a grandparent or adult.
Sue Speck