A Splendid Boy
|September 6, 2016||Posted by admin under Canadian, Fiction, History, Romance|
Publication Date: May 2016
A Splendid Boy by Melanie Martin would make a fantastic movie. World War I battlefield meets timeless romance. A young boy from outport Newfoundland pressured to enlist in the Newfoundland Regiment to save his family from financial ruin. Broken-hearted, his love goes to great lengths to follow him to the battlefields of France, travelling to St.John’s, finding passage to England, and volunteering as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), working her way to the front. In a scene that would fill movie theatres, Daniel and Emma reunite after two years and are given one night together when Daniel is tasked with fetching medical supplies from the field hospital where Emma worked. Their time is short-lived, as Daniel must return to the front lines of battle, and when they part, neither knows if they’ll see the other alive again.
I won’t ruin the experience and give away all of the details, but the reader learns the outcome of both Emma and Daniel within the first few chapters, as the book is told via a flashback technique. Now in their 80s, Emma and Daniel recount their war story for the first time—Daniel to a history buff, Emma to a graduate student. Both also must decide whether to attend an upcoming ceremony commemorating the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme—a battle in which hundreds of Newfoundlanders lost their lives on Beaumont-Hamel.
I say that this book would make a fantastic movie for many reasons. War. Battle. Romance. Suspense. All great elements of a good story. And the characters are strong—the reader connects to both Emma and Daniel and genuinely wants to see them thrive.
But while I praise all these elements, I admit to being frustrated with the book. Caveat: I am an editor by profession; however, I do try to turn off my editor brain when I read. In fact, I’ll often read a book simply for a good story, not caring about any literary merit whatsoever.
So it frustrated me to no end when I came across so many ways that this book could have gone from good to amazing, just by paying attention to detail. I found inconsistencies (One example: Daniel’s brother ages 2 years in the span of 30 pages—all set in the same timeframe, but in one scene he is eight, whereas in another he is ten), and many examples of the author telling the reader how to feel (e.g., “a look of confusion crossed her face”).
Even those things I could overlook, but what really frustrated me was the absence of potential powerful scenes. Here’s a young boy, sent to war—a completely foreign experience. Imagine how unsure he would be; how unfamiliar everything is. The reader gets a glimpse into how his training went in St. John’s prior to being shipped off to Turkey, but then the next we see Daniel is six months into the war. He’s already shot at the enemy. He seems accustomed to his new role as soldier. I couldn’t help but wonder what went through his mind the first time he picked up his rifle and fired it at another human being. I wanted to know what went through his mind. Similar story with Emma. The reader follows her journey from Middle Tickle to St. John’s to England, where she signs up as a VAD in hopes of getting near Daniel. But, another flash-forward and the reader sees Emma months into her work helping wounded soldiers. Like Daniel, she seems accustomed to her new role, no matter how heart-wrenching it is. I wanted to be there with Emma when she walked into the field hospital for the first time. Be by her side when she saw her first wounded soldier. Cry along with her when the first solider died as she watched.
There were many of these powerful scenes that happen “off stage”: When Daniel learns about the death of one of his friends, when Emma is forced to decide between living in the past and thinking about the future of her family, when Daniel says his final goodbye to his friend … the list goes on. Now, many of these are narrated in a flashback technique, but that doesn’t allow for the immediate emotional impact. Dialogue and in-the-moment reaction would have really enhanced these scenes and significantly strengthened the emotion felt by these characters.
Moreover, I got a bit tired of the mini-flashbacks the author used to detail certain events. The formula was the same: the first paragraph would describe some kind of surprising event, and then subsequent paragraphs would detail how that event came to be. The flashback technique is already being employed for the big-picture story—Daniel and Emma telling their tales. I found it distracting used within the flashback story itself. Also, doing so, as mentioned previously, prevented the author from telling the tale as it unfolded.
I also found the ending to be pretty Hollywood … what you would expect … and while that would make a great movie, it was difficult to digest as a reader. I don’t want to give away the ending so I won’t go into much detail about it here, but I found it just had too many elements that are unrealistic to the everyday life. I could almost hear the movie score in the background. I found it pretty rushed, actually.
I want to stress that I wouldn’t have been nearly as frustrated with this book if the story wasn’t strong. But it was! I enjoyed the plot immensely, and I just wanted Daniel and Emma’s story told in the strongest way.
Did both senior Daniel and Emma need to tell their stories through a third party invitation? Could that convention perhaps have worked for one of them, with the other telling it to a family member? Emma does have an adult daughter who would have made an excellent listener for her mother’s tale. More likely scenario than a graduate student showing up out of the blue at the same time that a historian shows up at Daniel’s place. Too coincidental and formulaic for me.
What happened to Daniel after the war? Did he return to his outport home or to St. John’s? This is never really answered. Daniel left Middle Tickle to fix his family’s financial situation with the local merchant. What was the state of his family when he returned? How were his parents, having worried about their son for four years and after having lost one son out on the ice during the seal hunt? We do know that older Daniel lives in St. John’s, but when and why did he move there?
The author does paint a vivid picture of what it was like being a young boy fighting a war. Many of the struggles these soldiers faced are covered: sickness, injuries, extreme cold, uncomfortable heat, poor nutrition, hopelessness, the effects war had on mental health … Martin works as a government historian in Newfoundland specializing in World War I and her background is an asset to this story. Her facts surrounding the war itself are incredible. And she did create engaging characters that I cared about. I tell my authors that they’ve succeeded in creating something special when I wake up in the morning thinking about their characters. I thought about Daniel and Emma a lot while reading this book.
So I don’t want to deter people from reading this book. But, just like many of the characters in this book (and many of the real people whose lives were twisted upside down by war), I’m just sad for what could have been.
For more information about this book or to learn how to get your very own copy, visit the publisher’s website here.