Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #20/50: In Flanders by Ivor Gurney

Editor’s Note: I feel this post is a day late and a dollar short. It is November 14th today (as of the push of the “Publish” button). November 11th is known as Remembrance Day here in Canada. On that day there are many ceremonies held across the country to honour those who served in various wars under the banner of Canada and the Canadian flag. However, I am of the opinion that the act of remembrance is something that should be a year-long affair. After all, my ability to live a life of peace is a year-long affair. Therefore, I publish this post a few days in arrears of the official Day of Remembrance in Canada. My gratitude is not restricted to dates on calendars. Please enjoy these words in the spirit of remembrance in which they were written.

As of the writing of this post, I have been alive for fifty-eight years and not once in all that time has someone tried to kill me. At least to my knowledge. I have never pre-checked the food or drink I consume for poison. When I leave my house, I don’t look down for trip-wires or land mines. There has never been an assassination attempt made on my life as I shop in local stores or stroll along the shoreline of my town. I don’t personally know anyone who has been the victim of a suicide bomber. The truth is that every single day of my life I have known peace. Every single day. Without fail or exception. I have lived a peace-filled life for all of my fifty-eight years and for that, I consider myself extremely lucky.

Part of my ability to make this claim is based on circumstance. I live in Canada and have done so for my whole life. In the time that I have been alive, Canada has never fought a war on home soil. In addition, while there have been wars around the world during my lifetime, Canada has never declared war and become an enemy combatant in any of these conflicts, and therefore, there has been no wartime conscription in which I may have been swept up. This makes me a civilian. I am a civilian in a peaceful country. This allows me to go about the business of living my life without fear of being killed by someone who has set out to do me harm.

This sculpture is dedicated to those who served in the merchant marine. The sculpture sits on the boardwalk along the harbour in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

This makes the act of Remembrance different for me than it does for those who have served in Canada’s Armed Forces. It also makes it different for people like my ninety-one year old mother who still tells stories of German U-boats off the coast of Sydney, Nova Scotia during World War II when she was just a teenager. In fact, along the boardwalk by Sydney’s harbour, there is a commemorative sculpture that honours the men and women of the Merchant Marine. These brave souls sailed an armada of supply ships from North America across the Atlantic Ocean to England, thus circumventing attempts by German forces to erect a blockade of England and starve it into submission and surrender. My mother remembers it all, and for her (as well as those who have served in Peacekeeping missions around the world), the act of Remembrance is a personal and solemn affair. So, as I don my poppy and bow my head, I do so from a different perspective…gratitude.

Flanders Fields in Belgium during WWI.

I am thankful to everyone who bravely faced death so that I may not. I will never know what you know and I imagine that from your perspective, you consider that a lucky thing for me to be able to say. While I have never faced battle, I am under no illusion that doing so is like being in a video game or a Hollywood movie. I am sure that in real life, the enemy soldiers are not all poor shots. My only basis for claiming to have some sense of understanding of what it is like to be at war comes from what I have seen in news reels or documentaries, or else, that I have read from books, newspapers and magazines. For those of us on the civilian side of things, we owe a debt of gratitude, not only to those who fought in wars so that we may enjoy the freedom that we do today, but, also, to those with an artistic bent who painted pictures, wrote stories or composed music that described the hellish conditions of war for the rest of us. In Canada, the most famous example of this comes in the form of a poem entitled “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae. His poem is one that most, if not all, Canadian school children learn, and is one that is read aloud across the land on the 11th of November each year. Flanders Fields is an area of land not far from Ypres in Belgium. Not everyone is aware that many of the most horrific battles of World War I were fought in Belgium. The slaughter that was The Battle of Passchendaele took place less than half an hour from Flanders Fields. In photos and films that I have seen, it seems like the battlefields were not, in fact, fields at all. Instead, they were endless expanses of mud, pock-marked by shell craters deep enough and slippery enough to drown many a soldier seeking escape from being exposed above ground in No Man’s Land. I have only seen the photos, as taken by war photographers such as Canadian William Rider-Rider, but for me, those photos are enough to know that I would never have wanted to be there.

Poet/Composer Ivor Gurney.

But someone who was there was a young Englishman named Ivor Gurney. Gurney was a gifted poet, musician and composer when World War I broke out. At that time, it was considered every young man’s patriotic duty to enlist so he did. However, upon enlisting, Gurney showed the first of many indications that he was not your average soldier going off to war. Ivor Gurney enjoyed privilege in his teenage life, and so would have been automatically placed in line for the officer ranks. However, upon enlisting, Gurney asked to be registered as a Private. When asked about this decision in later years, Gurney proclaimed that it was the Officer ranks who always lead the charges out of the trenches, and from what he had heard of battles already fought along The Western Front, being first out of the trenches was often akin to a suicide mission. So, he opted for pragmatism in the face of insanity and stayed in the trenches as long as he could before emerging to fight. Between engagements, Gurney wrote poetry of the same sort that John McCrae did. He wrote of the horrific conditions he found himself in. He wrote about comrades held close and then lost in battle. He also wrote about the mundane things, such as the texture of his rations, the way cigarette smoke rose into the air and of his longing for his home.

This plaque is displayed at Westminster Abbey. It features the names of England’s sixteen great “War Poets”. Ivor Gurney is listed near the middle of the plaque.

Like many soldiers who survived WWI, Gurney got lucky, in a way, because of injury and by being gassed with mustard gas. In both cases, Ivor Gurney’s injuries allowed him to be removed from the front lines and placed in the care of hospital staff. It was while recovering from being gassed that Gurney actually met a nurse with whom he fell in love. Eventually, Gurney was given an honourable discharge on the basis of “shellshock”. At the time, not much was understood about what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. One hundred years ago, mental illness was something that wasn’t discussed in civilized society. So, when Ivor Gurney was discharged, he was unable to cope with civilian life and ended up being declared insane, and, as a result, was committed to mental health facilities for most of his adult life. While this may sound tragic…and, of course, it is…the fact is that the regimented nature of life in a mental institution helped instill a sense of discipline in Gurney. At the core of who he was, Ivor Gurney was an artist and a creator. With the majority of life decisions now made for him by hospital staff, Gurney was free to focus his thoughts solely on creativity. Thus, Gurney’s period of hospitalization ended up being the most prolific of his entire life. While a patient in a variety of psychiatric hospitals, Ivor Gurney created over three hundred musical compositions, as well as several complete volumes of poetry. One of his most famous compositions was called “In Flanders”. It was based upon a poem by his friend, fellow poet, F.W. Harvey. “In Flanders” is a lament by a soldier for the peaceful valleys of home in England. This poem/composition helped English citizens come to better understand the conditions under which the men in their lives fought and died. Ivor Gurney died at the age of 47. Like many talented artists, Gurney’s creativity was always tenuous in nature. To others, he always seemed to live on the very edge between brilliance and complete instability. As prolific as he was, there was an equal amount of his work that was incomprehensible, and that has only survived destruction because of how it provided a window for others to see into the madness that was Gurney’s mind. But, when the storms of his mind subsided long enough for his creativity to rise to the fore, Ivor Gurney produced some of the clearest and most articulate visions of the apocalyptic nature of war in the history of English music and literature.. Consequently, after his death, Gurney’s work was assessed properly in its complete depth and vast scope. Because of this re-evaluation, Gurney was accorded a much higher degree of respect for his work. This resulted in Gurney being acknowledged in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey as one of the sixteen greatest War Poets in English history.

So, when it comes to Remembrance, I remain grateful for the life I am able to live. To those who fought in the trenches and on the beaches, in the air and on the sea, I thank you. I thank you, and in doing so, I acknowledge that I will never know what you know. My knowledge comes from the artists who painted pictures for the rest of us with their paintings, their poetry and their music. To them, I am thankful for their vision and their skill at providing a sense of the horror of it all and giving scope to the epic nature of what war truly is. But most of all, I place my hand over my heart in gratitude that someone like me should be so lucky as to learn about war through the notes of a song or the words of a poem while never having to have lived through it. As I write these final words, I do so without fear. I am as safe as one can be on this day. My to-do list today includes many things, but facing death from an enemy combatant is not one of them.

The link to the video for the composition “In Flanders” by Ivor Gurney can be found here. ***Lyrics can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Ivor Gurney Trust can be found here.

The link to the video of Leonard Cohen reading the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae can be found here.

The link to the official website for the museum at Flanders Fields in Belgium can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Juno Beach Centre in France can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Vimy Ridge Memorial can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission can be found here. (The CWGC acts to maintain all war graves containing the bodies of Commonwealth soldiers regardless of where they are buried throughout the world).

The link to the official website for photographer William Rider-Rider can be found here. *(Mr. Rider-Rider’s photographs account for many of the most famous and important photographs taken by a Canadian photographer during WWI).

The link to the official Government of Canada website for all things to do with Remembrance can be found here. *(This includes maps/links to all memorial cairns/cenotaphs in Canada, all soldiers listed in the Book of Honour at Parliament Hill and much, much more).

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Living a Life of Honour

Living a Life of Honour is, for me, the very best way to show respect to all of those who died in wars for Canada and who, to this day, continue to serve and protect others in the name of democracy and freedom. This post is about the value or lack thereof, of symbolic gestures. It is about being media savvy. It is about change being a part of life and of a country’s history. It is about Remembrance Day but, much bigger issues, too. I hope that you will all take the time to read my words.

In Canada, and in many countries around the world, Earth Day occurs in April, at or near the beginning of Spring. Earth Day is especially relevant these days because of the nature of Climate Change on our planet. One of the most symbolic aspects of Earth Day is something called Earth Hour. During Earth Hour, people are encouraged to eliminate electrical use from their lives for one hour. This means leaving lights off and using candles, for instance, just for that one hour. It is a visible gesture that lets other people know that you are supportive of good practices when it comes to the environment.

I can remember when Earth Hour first started, fifteen or twenty years ago. It was a fairly big deal. On the late newscasts that night, you would be able to watch notable structures like The Eiffel Tower, The Empire State Building, The C.N. Tower, etc., all go dark. In school, we would practice going non-electrical by turning off our computers, our overhead lights and working quietly with only the daylight to illuminate our work space. Those were heady times when it came to raising environmental awareness and empowering citizens to take action. However, as the years have gone by, fewer and fewer people pay attention to Earth Day and to Earth Hour. Those who no longer participate will tell you that turning your TV off for an hour really makes no discernible difference to one’s carbon footprint so, why bother. Those who don’t participate but have a more positive outlook will reply that caring about the Earth is not a one-day event. Every day should be Earth Day. It should be a lifestyle of positive choices, not just one single day of showy displays.

I will admit that in my house, we no longer light candles and power down our devices during Earth Hour. Instead, we have opted for a full year of positive environmental choices including virtually eliminating the use of plastic bags and straws, planting pollinator gardens for bees and butterflies, using rain barrels to capture rain water and reduce our water consumption and so on. We are not environmentally perfect but, we are making good choices and are on the right track 365 days of the year. To our way of thinking, living an environmentally friendly lifestyle trumps the showy symbolism of participating in Earth Hour. Most of our friends and family members agree. Most of our neighbours do, too. Lifestyle choices and systemic national choices are what will save our planet in the end and since I believe that we have ourselves a nice, little old planet, I advocate for living an environmentally friendly life all year long.

There are many other days on our calendar, like Earth Day, that are really not that important. For example, I love my wife all year long, not just on Valentine’s Day. I love my children all year long, not just on their birthdays. I love my mother all year long, not just on Mothers Day. I am a proud Canadian all year long, not just on Canada Day.

For each of those “days”, I have opted to take the longer term view and incorporate the message that each day brings, into a lifestyle that spans the year. I’m a loving, generous person to everyone I care about. No one has to tell me to treat my family nicely. I care about each one of them and do as much as I can to make their lives better, each and every day of the year. Doing so is an attitude that permeates everything that I do each day. For example, I am retired but, my wife isn’t yet. So, everyday, I do simple things like running errands and doing housework so my wife doesn’t have to worry about that sort of thing when she makes it home from work. This isn’t the showy, red roses kind of gesture that happens on Valentine’s Day but, it does make a difference in the life of someone I care about and it happens every day of her working life. It is a way of living one’s life for the benefit of others and doing so all year long. Because of that, those special days such as Valentines Day, seem forced to us. We almost feel obligated to make some sort of public gesture toward each other so that other people will be ok with it. For us, our love is deep and true and we feel it all 365 days of the year. We don’t need a special day in February to know that we love each other, despite what advertisers may wish us to feel. We live a love-filled life and that trumps the showy symbolism of Valentines Day. I can say the same about birthdays, Mother’s Day and Canada Day, too.

My reason for writing this post today is because of certain events that have transpired in Canada this past week. On Monday, we marked a special day known here as Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day is a day set aside to honour all people who have worn a military uniform for Canada and have fought, in some capacity, in wars around the world. Like caring for the Earth or loving those members of your family, showing respect to those who gave their lives so that we can all live a rather free and democratic life, is something worth doing. Like shutting off your lights for an hour on Earth Day or giving your loved one a box of Belgian chocolates on Valentines Day, there has come to be a socially-acceptable way of symbolically showing respect on Remembrance Day in Canada and that is, by wearing a poppy on the lapel of your coat, over top of your heart.

Remembrance Day is rooted in our History. For example, we observe Remembrance Day on November 11th at 11:00am because that is the date and time that the Armistice agreement was signed, ending World War 1. We wear poppies because of a famous poem written by medical doctor, Lt. John McCrae called In Flanders Field, about poppies growing on the battlefields near where he was tending the wounded. As a country, Canada came of age, in part, because of our participation as our own nation in the Allied Forces that battled on the Western Front in Europe. All through my life, until this year, Remembrance Day has always been a respectful and solemn observance that has always helped to remind everyone of the incredible price paid by some so we can live as we do.

This year in Canada, Remembrance Day didn’t feel like that. It felt divisive.

Increasingly, we seem to be living in a culture of “us vs them”. If you aren’t with us then, you’re against us. There is no common ground anymore. These days, we dig ourselves into our respective social media trenches on either side of our partisan demarcation points and we launch barrage after barrage of verbal grenades at those who aren’t like us. It is all so very ugly and it is a stain on the memories of those we used to seek to honour with our solemnity and decorum. This Remembrance Day was an ugly affair that ended up having very little to do with honouring anyone’s memory and everything to do with creating a patriotic litmus test over the showier aspects of the day. It was very much an “us vs them” yelling match over that ubiquitous notion of what constitutes “Canadian values”. The powder keg that ignited this blast? The little plastic poppies sold by The Royal Canadian Legion.

Apparently, fewer and fewer people have taken to wearing a plastic poppy. Like attendance in Church, poppy use has been on the decline in Canada for several years now. There are various theories on why this is; all of them containing some measure of validity. But, for many Canadians, a decrease in poppy use struck them as just one more attack on the history of Canadian culture. That our country is changing and evolving over time was cloaked in rhetoric that described that change as being a threat from “them” to “us”. In the process, TV personalities and media pundits all got involved in demonizing those bringing change….immigrants…….and the ugliness of it all erupted in volcanic proportions. Somewhere, lost in the muck and the mire, the dead bodies of those soldiers left behind in Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, rotated on a slow burn.

This is the danger when we, as a society, invest all of our energies into symbols instead of practices. The real-life litmus test about how to honour our fallen soldiers is no more about wearing a little plastic Belgian flower in November than buying my wife flowers in February is about how deeply my love runs for her. It is all about lifestyle choices and the attitudes that colour our lives all throughout the year. If we really want to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, here is a list of things we should do:

1- Vote: If the crux of why Canada went to war twice this past century was to preserve democratic values for those of us left behind then, it is our responsibility to help maintain democracy by voting in the elections that are held. Voting is one of the main ways we can all ensure that our country is run for the benefit of a majority of its citizens. So, if you want to honour a fallen soldier, whisper their name as you mark that “X” on whatever ballot you happen to have. Participatory Democracy is a wonderful thing and something that thousands of soldiers felt was worth fighting for. So, vote!

2- Listen/Read as a Critical Thinker: Somehow, in the poppy debate that sprang to life this week, a lack of critical thinking skills was on display for all to see. Somehow, all Canadian soldiers who fought in wars were white men and we can’t say Merry Christmas anymore and our Prime Minister wore black face at a party in his younger days and so, what ya going to do about that, eh?! Logic disappeared down the rabbit hole and it quickly became very difficult to have a sensible conversation with anyone about Remembrance Day at all. The talk all became about TV personalities and immigrants who, if you follow the Alice-in-Wonderlandesque logic displayed in most online comment threads, aren’t real Canadians and they are the cause of change and we don’t like change now, do we?!

Sometimes a news story is what it is about and, sometimes, it is about something bigger. There was, obviously, a political aspect to the debate about poppies and immigrants and Canadian values. Anti-immigration views are held by right-wing political parties around the world. Seeing as we get so much of our news online these days, it is important to know the spin behind the post or tweet you read. It is equally important to understand how media ownership in Canada shapes the way stories are reported and/or not reported at all. Being a critical thinker and understanding how information makes its way to your screen is a very important skill to have. Sometimes, a simple sound bite is easier to digest than to actually take the time to examine an issue but, if you really want to honour the memory of a fallen soldier then, take the extra time to read critically so you completely understand what you are debating and what is at stake. Because, let’s be honest, the poppy controversy this week was never really about poppies.

3- Be a Decent Human Being: If you are ever read a survey of citizens of foreign countries being asked about Canada and Canadians, you always get the same results: Canadians are nice and friendly and kind and caring and have good education system and healthcare and lots of beautiful land. Our image in the world remains very positive. We can honour the memory of our veterans by helping to keep Canada that country that is a such a role-model throughout the world. One of the best ways to do that is by being all of the things that we are known for. Be kind to those you come into contact with. It costs nothing to smile and be pleasant and polite. Live an environmentally friendly lifestyle because it helps preserve the wonderful countryside, of which there is so much in Canada. Be thankful and grateful to those who work on your behalf. If you want to thank a veteran or honour a memory, do so but, as well, thank your waiter/waitress, thank the cook who made your meal. Thank your child’s teacher. Thank a police officer or fire fighter or nurse for all they do. Be thankful and positive as your go-to option in life. People appreciate being treated nicely. Raising the tenor of our social conduct is a wonderful way to maintain a Canada that the world loves and that millions died to protect.

4- Be Receptive To Change: Change is a part of life. I know that I certainly live differently now that I did half a lifetime ago. Some of those changes have come at my discretion but, others have come because of age or finances or external factors such as the environment. Regardless of how I arrived at each new point in my life, each new point appeared and I was tasked with accepting said change or fighting it. When it comes to the poppy debate, this is one of the fundamental underlying aspects: change and how people react toward it.

Those who stoke division as a political tool will tell you that change is to be avoided at all cost. Change is a threat to a way of life that deserves protection and continuation. For example, green energy is portrayed as a threat to those who favour fossil fuels. Immigration is portrayed as a threat to those who believe that a white, Christian culture is the foundation of our History. There is never room for blending options; one is good and one is always bad. One is to be treasured, one is to be feared. In the poppy debate this week, immigrants were used as a political tool to reinforce the notion that change is bad and is to be resisted. I have had several conversations this week with people about this and each of them said, at one point or another, “I wish things didn’t have to change.” It was said with a sigh and a sense of resignation that “others, who are different from us” will be defining how we live our lives going forward. That is too bad because that is not how it needs to be. Change can be wonderful.

Meeting my wife changed my life in a significant way, as did, having children. But, in both instances, that change bettered my life. When I grew up, I did so in a house that served a meat-and-potatoes meal almost every night. I loved those foods and still enjoy ham and steak and roast beef, etc. today. But, moving away from home brought me into contact with people who came from different cultural backgrounds and who introduced me to things like pirogies, curry, homemade tortillas and so much more. My diet is richer and more varied because I accepted change into my life. The biggest recent change for me has been retirement and the greatest positive consequence of retiring has been a complete revamping of how I spend my time during a day. I am more relaxed/less stressed, I do more of what I am interested in doing, I still get to be helpful to others and because I can get things done around the house during the day, it changes how family time is used because that time is no longer having to be spent on errands or chores as much as it once did. Change has given me a family and good food and time to use as I see fit. Change has been good and I am thankful to all of the various kinds souls who have come into my life and helped me grow as a person.

As we move onward with our lives, it is my belief that we need to do so with a greater resolve to move away from placing too much importance on symbolic gestures such as wearing a poppy or turning off your lights on Earth day and move toward developing a year-long set of lifestyle choices that demonstrate our commitment to a healthier environment, a more loving and positive social life, a more involved and aware sense of civic responsibilities and a broader, deeper appreciation for the changes that life throws our way.

I will end with the following: at the beginning of the movie Patton, actor George C. Scott, in the title role, famously said, “No one ever won a war by dying for their country. They won the war by making some other dumb, son of a bitch die for his country.” Our soldiers fought their wars with the belief that they were the good guys. They believed that they were representing a nation that was good, as well. They fought against oppression and cruelty. They fought for freedom and democracy. If we want to honour their memory, wear a little plastic flower on your lapel if that so moves you but, more than that, honour their memory by living a life of honour and charity and faithfulness. Be a good person. Last time I checked, good people came in all shapes, sizes, colours, religions, genders, and cultures, too.

Rose Blanche

In Canada, on November 11, we pause and reflect upon those whose lives have been affected by War. We call this day, Remembrance Day. In schools all over the country, children will learn about how wars come about and how they are resolved. They will learn about famous battles and about the soldiers who fought and died in them. They will, also, learn about symbols of war, such as the poppy, that we wear over our hearts.

In my career as a teacher, I always welcomed the opportunity to explore the serious topic of conflict with my students. Coming as it does on the heels of Halloween, Remembrance Day serves to vividly highlight the distinction between dress up costumes from the world of monsters and a soldier’s military dress, from the world of war. My experience was that the kids were usually quite respectful during our Remembrance Day activities and that they wanted to do their best work and that they wanted to learn more about what War was really like. That’s where having access to good books helped a lot.

One of my first goals in my Remembrance Day Units was to impress upon the kids that War is not like a video game or a movie. It is not play time. It was very real and serious for those involved. However, it is important to remember that small children do not often have any personal experiences to draw upon during these initial discussions so, it was important for me to present battle scenes in ways that they could relate to.  So, I showed them battle scene photos; especially of the trench warfare from Passchendale or Ypres; all mud and obliterated landscapes and I asked them simple questions like, “What do you think the soldiers did when they got hungry?”….there were no recess breaks during the battles where the soldiers could all have a snack. “Where did they go to the bathroom?”….there were no toilets or toilet paper. “Where did they sleep at night?”…..there were no beds or blankets, only cold, wet mud.  It didn’t take many discussions like this for the kids to realize that they would not like to be in those conditions of battle at all. They quickly came to the conclusion that many soldiers were tired and hungry and cold and wished that they were anywhere else than where they were. In other words, the students started to develop a sense of empathy.

Once those discussions were had, I wanted to take their thoughts to the next level by talking about, not just the brave soldiers who fought in the battles but, those also affected by War…..the civilians. We would talk about what would happen to our school, our houses and our neighbourhoods if wartime battles took place there. This is when I would reach for one of the most important and valuable books I had in my personal library, Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti.

What a potent and powerful story this is!  The main character, Rose Blanche, is a young German girl. The story is told from her perspective and unfolds over the course of the entire Second World War. As you know from History, Germany was quite successful in the first half of World War II. So, in the beginning of this book, Rose’s town is decorated with flags, it is clean, the buildings are sturdy and bright, the soldiers passing through are all well-dressed in clean uniforms, their tanks and other equipment are all shiny and new.

But, one day, while coming from school, Rose witnesses something that changes her life. She sees a young boy, her age, taken by police and put in the back of a closed truck that was filled with other people. She doesn’t understand why the boy was taken away and decides to follow the truck as it heads out of town. At this point, I always stopped and asked the kids why they thought the boy was taken away. Every class said that he must have been bad and broken a law or done something wrong. No one ever said that it was because he was Jewish.

Rose’s journey leads her to a prison camp. The sickly looking people on the other side of the barbed wire all have yellow stars on their clothes. Rose doesn’t understand why they are imprisoned but she knows they are starving so she starts smuggling food out of her own home and bringing it to the prisoners.

The illustrations in the second half of the story start to reflect the tide of the War as it turned against the Germans. Now, the buildings Rose walks past are damaged, the landscape is turning grey, soldiers are coming in the opposite direction from when we first saw them and they are injured and weary-looking. Without saying it in words, the illustrations show that the front lines of the War are approaching Rose’s town.

IMG_2743The book concludes with Rose walking, again, to the prison camp. But, this time, a battle is raging in the forest by the camp and in the chaos of that battle a shot rings out and Rose is killed. The final page of the book shows the battle field has regenerated and a poppy is growing where Rose had stood that fateful day. The first line on this page reads, “Rose Blanche’s mother wanted a long time for her little girl.” It is an emotional punch in the gut. The kids are usually all very sombre at this point so I would always pause slightly and then, in hushed tones, ask about their Mom waiting for them to come home that day and how she would feel if they didn’t come home as expected.

No one thinks War is fun or cool after this.

Rose Blanche is a serious book. But, there is a place in a classroom for serious books. The key to being able to successfully address serious topics in a classroom is having established a safe, trusting environment during those opening weeks of the school year. This is not a book to read on the first day of school. But, it is a book to read once you, as a teacher, reach the point when you can say to a class that we are safe in this space, we can talk about anything in this space and we can move forward together in this space. Books like Rose Blanche expedite this bonding process exponentially.

Rose Blanche is the sort of book that kids would look at thoughtfully and quietly on their own or with a trusted friend during our Reading time. I always kept the book out on display throughout our Remembrance Day Unit and then put it away afterwards. However, before putting it away, I always made sure to promise the kids that if they ever wanted to read it again then, I would happily share the book with them. That’s what you do with good books….you share them with your friends, as I am now with you.

Are there any “serious” books that you remember from school or from home that made a lasting impact on your life? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments. Thanks, as always, for reading my words.