Thursday 14 November 2019

Rod's take on the Great War

Local children's author Rod Smith talks to John Manning about his latest historical novel for children that focuses on the events of the Great War

Rod Smith with his new children’s novel at the chapel in Swords Castle
Rod Smith with his new children’s novel at the chapel in Swords Castle

Finding the appropriate way to translate the horrors of the Great War into a book a child of 10 or 12-years-old can relate to was the awesome challenge facing local author, Rod Smith in his latest novel for children.

Rod who lives in Malahide and hails originally from Drogheda has carved something of a niche for himself in the publishing world, specialising in writing historically-based adventure and fantasy stories for children.

His latest work follows that trend and uses as its background, some of the key events of World War I.

A veteran of some 11 children's books now, this is Rod's second novel for children. In the first he tackled the controversial figure of Cromwell and now he has fast-forwarded in time to World War I.

That playing with time is key to both books as Rod puts a pair of time-travelling children at the heart of historical events and sees those events through their eyes.

Although the books are full of adventure, fantasy and humour, he is scrupulous in his historical research for the books and resists sugar-coating the darker elements of the story.

Getting that balance right is a challenge, as Rod explains: 'The basic premise of the story is the characters go back in time to save their Great Grandfather who was fighting in the war at the age of 15.

'He had lied about his age to get in as many did at the time. There were even 12-year-olds that joined up, believe it or not and soldiers would be able to spot them because when the bombs started dropping, often the 12-year-olds would start to cry.

'I decided I couldn't make the two children at the centre of the story soldiers, and because Aoife is obviously a girl, she wouldn't have been accepted in the army so she disguises herself as a bloke.

'As well as the ability to travel through time, they have the ability to look older, and that's what they do because they are only 12.

'My challenge was that I couldn't make them soldiers and have them killing people so I turned them into medics.'

The local author adds: 'Their Great Grandfather is a soldier who actually likes killing people and is quite an unpleasant character to begin with but he becomes a medic too and as the story progresses, you learn a bit more about the character.'

Rod explains: 'For something like the Somme, I don't hold back on what's happening and I do go into a certain level of detail because that's what happened but you do have the kids there trying to help the wounded soldiers and fallen soldiers.

'It's not something you can sugar coat but bearing in mind the audience is probably around 10, 11, 12, I try to tell it in a way that doesn't glorify what went on and shows how tough and how much of a struggle it was.'

Rod explains why he chose the events of World War I as the book's historical period this time around: 'It's a period that has always fascinated me and I had forgotten an awful lot about it. World War I in Ireland, because the Easter Rising happened at the same time, was always something that wasn't really spoken about for a long time in Ireland.

'So I thought it was one where I could start digging a little bit deeper and see what was going on there.'

A number of Irish historical figures surface in the book, some well known, some all but forgotten and one very well known to people in Fingal, Louth and Meath.

Rod explains: 'I actually used the character of Francis Ledwidge. I mentioned the Drogheda Independent in the book actually because Ledwidge had poems published in the Drogheda Independent in the early 1900s.

'The characters meet Ledwidge and he tells them how disillusioned with the war he is because of what happened with the Rising. He had friends in the Rising who were killed and he's now unsure of what he is fighting for.'

World War I is a huge subject to tackle in a children's book so the author had to pick and choose what aspects of the war he would focus on.

Rod explains: 'That was the big question for me.

'Am I going to cover the whole war or do I pick a few aspects of it or just one aspect of it.

'I wanted to cover the whole four years but I would have needed a 3,000 page book to cover everything so I picked some specific incidents, mainly involving Irish people.

'So I've included things like the Christmas truce, some of the battles in France, the Somme and something that happened later on involving the Indian Army and the Americans.'

What role did the Irish play in the famous Christmas truce that saw the two sides lay down their arms for Christmas Day and greet each other in the 'no-man's land' between them?

Well, regretfully, it fell to an Irishman to start hostilities all over again.

Rod explains: 'It was an Irish captain, Arthur O'Sullivan (who features in the book) was the guy who fired the shot to signal the end of the Christmas truce.'

Another fascinating but largely forgotten character with Irish connections features in the story as Rod recounts: 'One of the characters in the book is an Irish-Belgian guy called Adrian Carton-Dewiart.

'He had an Irish background and grew up in Belgium but he ended up in the British Army in South Africa and he became a well known soldier then in World War I.

'He lost an eye, part of his ear, had his hand blown off, he was shot in the head and survived and had to walk with a stick after being shot in the leg.'

Rod adds: 'He ended up becoming a very good friend of Winston Churchill and later on he was knighted after World War II where he escaped from a POW camp in Italy.

'He ended up spending his last days in West Cork where he died in the 1960s and he's buried there now.

'I had never heard of this guy. He seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

'These are the kind of things you come across in you research.'

All of these characters are weaved into the story through the book's witnesses, the children that first appeared in Rod's Cromwell book, and reappear here in 'World War I - When the Lights Went Out in Europe'.

Liam and Aoife and their experiences in the war speak directly to the young readers and speak their language, avoiding the ultimate pitfall of children's fiction that is the sense that the author is talking down to his or her readers.

Rod hopes by taking this approach, he can engage young readers in the subject matter and avoid turning the books into dry historical lessons, but with a hint of adventure, fantasy and humour, provide what he calls 'a key' for children to open the doors to their own investigation of history.

Fostering a love of history in his readers is important to the local writer who says: 'We can't know where we are going until we understand where we have come from.'

Having researched the subject exhaustively, what does Rod make of the Great War now?

He says: 'I always thought it was a war that made no sense. I suppose no war makes sense but at least you could argue in WWII that there was a bad guy but in WWI there was no real bad guy so what were they fighting for. It was really all about certain Empires saying we are better than you are, stronger than you are and we are going to prove it.'

He adds: 'For the soldiers who signed up, they thought it would be an adventure and particularly in Ireland, there were no jobs and people were living in very poor conditions and soldiers could send home money every week or month to their families.

'So many young people went off thinking they were going to be riding around on horses and setting off cannons and machine guns. Of course instead, the generals threw them in like fodder, sent thousand and thousand more soldiers in, repeating the same strategies and hoping the more people they threw at it, the more successful they might be.'

Drogheda Independent