The Red Poppy explores common ground

New Zealand writer David Hill tells Linda Herrick how a song triggered his latest picture book and how he called upon his own uncles’ memories.

Book cover of The Red Poppy. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The Red Poppy. Photo / Supplied

A few succinct words on each page combined with eloquent illustrations bring home the horror of World War I in The Red Poppy, a new picture book by Taranaki writer David Hill and Wellington artist Fifi Colston.

Hill - a regular reviewer on these pages and a prolific Young Adult writer - says the project began with a song, Canadian musician Rob Kennedy's Little Red Poppy: "So remember the scarlet flower/ The little red poppy/ That never died on the battlefields./ Like the memories of all our countrymen/ We wear them close to our hearts/ Like the little red poppy."

"The whole thing started with Rob's song," says Hill. "One of the New Zealand Scholastic staff heard it and thought it would be lovely to have a book to go with it. They contacted me and said they had this song about a red poppy and did I think there was a story that could go with it. So it was the CD first, then the text, then the illustrations."

The book opens "the night before the battle", as young Kiwi soldier Jim McLeod sits in a dark trench on the Western Front, writing to his mother and sister.

"He said nothing about the day to come, nor the mud and the rats. He didn't mention the piles of stretchers waiting for the dead and wounded ... "

Hill sets the mood of fear and foreboding as Jim counts down the hours, then minutes, before he has get out of the trench and start fighting. As dawn breaks, "the battlefield was silent. No guns fired. Even the birds were quiet." With 12 minutes to go, he looks over to see his comrade Matiu patting Nipper, their messenger dog (modelled on Colston's own little dog Molly), then "BOOM! BLAM! the world seemed to explode" and young Jim and his mates are on their way, Jim pausing to pity the Germans being relentlessly shelled, "Those poor men! No, they were enemy. He mustn't think that way."

A number of Hill's great-uncles fought in World War I. "My Uncle Fred was the guy I most remember," he says. "He was at the Somme and some of the battles around Passchendaele later. He was a Western Front survivor. But he never talked about it and, of course, he was only my uncle anyway, so what was there interesting about my uncle? It wasn't until years later that I came to comprehend slightly and luckily I was able to talk to him about it a bit before he died and after he'd got the emotions to some extent sorted and settled.

"I had a much younger uncle who fought in Crete during World War II and he helped the Crown Prince of Greece and the King and the Prime Minister escape across Crete to the southern coast. I was talking to my dad about this and he said Fred had his own war stories to tell. Next time we saw Fred, he was by then a lovely, handsome 85-year-old playing bowls in Waipawa in Hawkes Bay.

"I asked him where he was and what he remembered. He was very grave, he talked very quietly, he looked at the ground a lot, he shook his head. It was the terrible loss he remembered most. I remember Uncle Fred saying, 'we wouldn't do that now'. I think it wasn't just the army chain of command but also as a society then - young men were conditioned to believe that their elders knew better and the social hierarchy and obedience were valued and promoted."

Poppies blooming in the battlefield offer the only sense of natural beauty in the grim landscape in the book, but when Jim is wounded by a sniper and falls into a deep shell hole, he goes "cold with fright" when he discovers red blotches all over his uniform. A badly injured German soldier, also lying in the hole, reassures him: "Nein, nein" as he holds up a poppy. Jim is covered in pieces of poppies.

"Apparently that was an astonishing feature of many parts of the Western Front," says Hill. "The wildflowers grew very fast and they would appear on patches of ground that had been obliterated. The letters of the troops and the poetry have many accounts of the ephemeral beauty of the flowers amid the devastation."

As Jim and the German soldier Karl lie in the hole staring at each other - enemies discovering a common humanity - a dark shape appears at the edge. "A friend, come to help him?" thinks Jim. "An enemy, come to kill him? No, not a soldier. A dog. Nipper!"

Together, Jim and Karl write a note asking for help and place it in Nipper's message pouch, slipping in a poppy to show they are sheltering in the patch of flowers. As Nipper wags his tail and takes off, Karl pulls out a photo of his family - his wife, two daughters and a little black dog, Mitzi. The two men have reached a mutual empathy, and when the battle is over, Jim looks up at the sky and hears a bird singing. "I'm glad I didn't have to shoot anyone, he thought. I never want to hurt anyone for the rest of my life."

Hill's compressed text is deeply affecting, yet he says he had trouble keeping it tight. "Penny Scown and Diana Murray at Scholastic said they'd like about 1000 words, so I wrote 3000," he laughs. "To my disbelief and shock they suggested the length should be cut. There is no accounting for the insensitivity of editors. I knew pretty early on the narrative I wanted - I wanted one of fear, of men under extreme conditions and I wanted the idea of common ground. Cutting it down was a very salutory exercise."

Hill has another book set during World War I coming out in August, this time aimed at YA readers. It follows two brothers - one a conscientous objector, while the other wants to enlist.

The Red Poppy ($33, CD included) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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