For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the subject of war, either in the form of war literature, television documentaries or films. I studied English at university and I spent a vast amount of time indulging this passion by writing my dissertation on the subject. However, since graduating I have been unable to read for pleasure in the same way that I used to despite numerous attempts. After not reading a single book for over a year and really missing the thrill of a new book I decided to try again. I'm so glad I didn't give up completely as I have definitely made up for lost time by devouring more books than I thought possible! During one of my most recent trips to the library I spotted Robin Scott-Elliot's 'The Way Home' and after quickly scanning the blurb I knew instantly that this would be my type of book. Thankfully I was not wrong and it has proved to be a thoroughly insightful and emotional read.
'The Way Home' chronicles the life of a Scottish family before, during and after the Great War. Like a lot of literature from the period, the novel is based upon real people and real events. However unlike accounts such as Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, this story is more fictionalised. The family consists of four brothers; Bertie, Ronnie, Charlie and Teddie and their parents William and Nora. Bertie, the eldest of the four is married to the suitably named Gertie and they have two children, Allan and Charles. This tight family unit is the main focus of the book; however the shocking events of the First World War means that there extended network of friends and family can't fail to feel the reverberations.
The novel begins in 1905 with an early letter between two of the brothers. It continues in this fashion with excerpts from other letters between the family. In one of the longer letters we learn that Ronnie is returning from a long stay in Rhodesia. It is March 1914 and by the August of that very year War has been declared, inevitably separating the recently reunited family. The novel follows each of the boys' individual reaction to war and the shared sense of duty that they all feel. Despite all following different paths the patriotism they share clearly unites them. Through the terrible events that unfold the whole family becomes united by the overwhelming personal and national grief as more bodies were surrendered to the mud of Flanders fields.
The majority of the novel is written in a letter format, and this forms the basis of the boy's story in their own words. These letters are interspersed with diary entries from the boy's mother, Nora. Initially I struggled with letter form as it was quite confusing as to who the narrative voice was, however after a couple of chapters this was no longer an issue. The boy's individual personalities come across really quickly so this helps distinguish between the numerous characters. The letters are also divided up into manageable chapters which also help.
Before each letter we are told who it was written by, the date and the location it was written in. I found this extremely helpful, especially the inclusion of the exact date as the novel does tend to jump around a little. When I say this, all I mean is that although the events are narrated in chronological order, there are sometimes big gaps in time. As the novel spans a number of years it is inevitable that this happens and does not diminish the brilliant narrative. In many ways it adds to the intensity of the events and some of the events become even more shocking because of it. Despite my initial reservations I really warmed to the form of the novel as I felt it gave a real sense of sincerity to the characters and their opinions seemed genuine and believable.
As the subject matter of this book is so horrifying it would not be appropriate to say that I enjoyed it. However, I found it extremely interesting and it was a difficult book to put down. I felt I had really connected with the characters and felt concerned for them when they went off to war and I kept on reading in the hope that they would return to the safety of their home in Strathairly. There is a real sense of division between the country setting of Strathairly, where all of the boys grew up, to the volatile and dangerous backdrop of trench life. This makes the events of the novel seem even more tragic.
What I found most effective about the book is the contrasting perspectives of warfare. Despite affecting men, women and children of every generation history in its purest sense exists in the form of the male testimony. Traditionally, what we know about the war and the fraught period leading to its outbreak is based upon a male perspective, yet this novel challenges this stereotype by the inclusion of entries from Nora's diary.
Nora is not your stereotypical patriotic mother waving her son's off in a jingoistic frenzy. Instead, through her diary entries we see her genuinely wanting her boys to remain in the safety of England. She idolises her son's and put's her youngest son Teddie on a pedestal referring to him as her 'brave knight'. Although this could be said to be a selfish attitude, I feel it brings warmth to her character as we see the genuine love she has for all of her family.
Initially at the outbreak of war Nora starts off worrying about trivial matters and at the suggestion of having to dig up the garden she hopes that it will 'never come to that'. Yet, this material view soon subsides as the years of trench warfare continue and the garden becomes the least of her worries. By the end of the novel you cannot help feeling a deep sense of sorrow for Nora as her belief that 'Miracles do not happen in Scotland' is realised.
Nora's female perspective is counteracted by the differing male perspectives of her son's. This is a captivating read because of the fact that all of her son's follow different paths in the army, so they all have differing experiences. Bertie, Ronnie and Charlie all experience the horror of trench warfare, however as they all go over to France at different stage of the war their experiences are fundamentally different. Another point of interest is the fact that neither of these brothers follows the same pattern into the army and follows different ranks. Teddie, the youngest of the brothers becomes a pilot which gives an added view of war from above. As part of his duty he also trains new recruits back in England highlighting the recruitment process and the extent of the effort involved in organising and training an army. This wide range of experiences incorporating war on the frontline and on the home front really does make the novel very balanced.
Another interesting aspect throughout the novel was the shifting nature of patriotism that was continually expressed. At the beginning of the novel when war is declared, patriotism unites the country and the brothers into signing up to do their duty. Even back home in Scotland, the boys' father feels compelled to help by committing himself to running his successful business almost single handily whilst doing a great deal of Red Cross work as well. We witness the rush of patriotism when young men who are not in uniform are given the white feather signalling cowardice. As the novel progresses this sense of patriotism diminishes. It is clear that the boy's still feel a sense of duty but the old idea about the glory of war is understandably no longer present. The most poignant loss of patriotic faith comes near the end of the novel after four long years of drudgery when Bertie laments 'Shall we be sitting here, in this mud and filth for the rest of our lives surrounded by the smell of death amidst an ever changing cast of brave young men written to play only a brutally fleeting and quickly forgotten role in the history of this enormous conflict?'.
To me this extract sums up the novel, except for the fact that I will not forget the story that I have read.
Overall, this book has to be one of the most balanced, insightful and more importantly extremely emotional reads that I have ever read. I am not ashamed to say that this book definitely made me shed a tear or two. Despite the subject matter, the language is accessible and easy to connect with. I would recommend it as a must-read for anybody interested in this subject.
Author: Robin Scott-Elliot
Title: The Way Home
Publisher: Troubador Publishing
** I apologise if this sounded like an English essay - old habits die hard!