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09 January 2014
“My dad was a toy maker, the finest in London. He made miniature castles and marionettes, trams and trains and carriages. He carved a hobbyhorse that Princess Mary rode through the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. But the most wonderful thing that Dad ever made was an army of nutcracker men. He gave them to me on my ninth birthday, thirty soldiers carved from wood, dressed in helmets and tall black boots. They carried rifles tipped with silver bayonets. They had enormous mouths full of grinning teeth that sparkled in the sun. They were so beautiful that every boy who saw them asked for a set for himself. But Dad never made others. ‘They’re one of a kind,’ he said. ‘Those are very special soldiers, those.’”
Some books are like that–special in such an intangible way I don’t really even know how to begin writing about them. Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence is just such a book. I discovered the book in my teens during a trip to the library. It snatched me in from the beginning. Mostly because it contains so many of the things I’m fascinated with—history, childish imagination and bigger-than-life characters.
After Johnny’s father joins the service during World War I, Johnny’s mother sends him to live in Cliffe with his maidenly Aunt Ivy out in the country for safety. Taking his precious nutcracker men with him, Johnny settles in at Aunt Ivy’s, using her garden as a pretend battle field where he can dig trenches, set out his soldiers and mimic the battles that are taking place just over the English Channel. At first, the letters from Dad are bright and cheerful and so are the whittled toy soldiers he sends. But as the war progresses, the letters begin to express the true horrors of war and each new soldier Dad sends takes on more realistic features. One day, after fighting a battle with his soldiers, Johnny is struck with the fear that somehow the results of his battles in the garden effect the war raging in France—a fear that turns to hope. “From breakfast to lunch, from tea until supper, I battled with my soldiers. In rain and cold I crouched there, hoping it was really true that whatever happened in the garden would happen again in France. If there was the slightest chance of that—if there was any hope at all—the war might end by Christmas, and my father might come home.”
There are so many side stories going on in this book, woven together perfectly. There’s the relationship between Johnny and his aunt, Johnny and schoolmaster Mr. Tuttle, Johnny and Murdoch the mysterious wounded soldier who haunts the countryside. Best of all is the letter from Johnny’s dad describing the Christmas Truce of 1914, when both sides put away their guns for an entire day, come out of the trenches, sing carols, play games. As unreal as it sounds, it actually happened, and Mr. Lawrence does beautiful justice to that reality in Lord of the Nutcracker Men.
It doesn’t seem to matter how often I’ve read the book (it’s been several times). It always brings tears to my eyes. The story is warm and compassionate while dealing with the entire gamut of the human experience. Get it and read it. You won’t regret it.
“The German voices rumbled to us across no-man’s-land, and we cried to hear them, Johnny, we really did. We stood sniffing and wiping our eyes, looking up at the stars because that song was just so beautiful. So sad. And when it finished, some of our lads started singing the same carol, with the English words. And the Germans listened to us for a while. Then they joined right in, enemies singing the same song, as perfectly as a church choir…And then, when we’d finished, one of the Germans called across to us in English. ‘Good night, Tommies,’ he said. And someone shouted back, quite gently: ‘Good night, Fritz.’ And Johnny, we wept like schoolgirls.”