Private Johnny Hawke has left home and lied about his age to join the British Army during WW2. Inspired by his sister’s fiancé, who is Sergent of the York Rangers, the battalion that Johnny joins, he believes war to be an exciting adventure. Stationed at Cassel, with the now guilt ridden Sergeant, Johnny comes to realise although war can be exciting, violent death is a reality everywhere he turns.
Set during the famous battle at Dunkirk, in which the Germans surrounded the British and forced their retreat from France via the Channel to England, this historical novel is very careful in its accuracy. The author, James Holland, is a war historian, and his detailed general knowledge of the period makes the book come alive. From eating bully beef out of a can, to weapon specifications, Holland handles the historical material deftly. The book includes several maps of the area in which the book is set and a glossary of historical terms and common slang at the time so a reader can more fully understand and enter the world of Johnny Hawke.
It is interesting that Holland did not choose to focus on the famous retreat and the involvement of civilians as much of the young adult literature about Dunkirk has previously. Instead this is the story of an ordinary solider, and was apparently requested by some school children in England. This means that this is a high action novel, but somehow does not resonate the way a novel such as The Snow Goose did, another famous Dunkirk novel, as it fails to say anything larger about war, or people in general. Johnny is an engaging character, if a little naive, and his courage is admirable. Sergeant Spears, however, seems to eclipse him, with his far more interesting back story. This is an issue in a story in which the reader is meant to empathise with Johnny.
The novel could be used in a classroom, although it might be more useful as voluntary reading. Teachers should be aware of a level of realistic violence that although appropriate for the subject matter, might mean that they should avoid using it with younger students. Use with students ages 12 and up is probably most appropriate. It could be incorporated into a study of the Second World War, but its focus exclusively on the British and this one battle means that it might be recommended reading, rather than required reading.
The book is written with reluctant male readers in mind, however the sometimes uneven pacing of action scenes as a result of an effort to keep the novel historically accurate mean that some parts of the novel slow down, and might lose readers. The book would probably appeal mostly to those boys who like to read about weapon specifications and non-fiction about war. They can also follow up some of the historical detail on Holland’s Duty Calls website, with personal accounts of soldiers, and pictures of military hardware.