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‘Jim’s Letters’ a moving story of a soldier’s short life

April 8, 2014

‘Jim’s Letters’ a moving story of a soldier’s short life

War affects children, and it is important they understand how it impacts families and societies, says Professor of War Studies Glyn Harper, who has written a new children’s book based around correspondence between a New Zealand boy and his Gallipoli-bound soldier brother.

Jim’s Letters (Penguin) recounts fictional soldier Jim Duncan’s travels and experiences during World War I in Egypt and Gallipoli through letters to his younger brother, Thomas, who lives on the family sheep station in the South Island. The book, which has already stirred emotions among adult readers, will be launched at Ashhurst School, Manawatu, on April 11.

Beautifully illustrated by graphic artist Jenny Cooper and with removable realistic folded letters, the story of 18-year-old Jim’s expeditions is based on research from Professor Harper’s Letters from Gallipoli: New Zealand Soldiers Write Home (Auckland University Press, 2011), a collection of 190 letters previously unpublished from a pool of more than 600 collected from archives, newspapers and family collections.

In the book, Jim’s first messages home are full of buoyant anticipation and bravado as he regales the sights and sounds of Cairo, the military training, and the camaraderie with fellow soldiers as they approach the battle zones of Europe and Turkey.

Young brother Thomas’s replies contain a sense of envy and admiration mingled with uncertainty and concern felt by their parents.

“We pray each night that you are safe. Mum says Gallipoli is no place for an 18-year-old boy and she should have made you wait until you were 20. I wish I could be with you Jim…”

Jim’s final letter to his family from the trenches of Gallipoli describes the intense heat, the terrible food, the burying of dead soldiers, while conveying his mixed feelings. He writes:

“War is certainly not the great adventure I thought it would be,” but concludes on a cheery note with; “Please tell Mum not to worry about me. I would not have missed this experience for the world.”

Professor Harper says he balked initially at the idea of ending the book with Jim being killed, but felt it was the most honest conclusion. By the time the actual Gallipoli campaign ended on August 8 – nine months after it began – nearly 3000 New Zealand soldiers were dead, along with more than 80,000 Turkish, 44,000 British and French, and over 8500 Australian soldiers.

The story ends with the last un-posted letter from Thomas tenderly expressing his love, admiration and sense of loss to his dead brother has brought some readers to tears. “My wife cried, my editor cried, my publicist cried. It’s had quite an effect,” Professor Harper says.

As well as honouring one of the most significant events in New Zealand history, he hopes the book will give young people an appreciation of both the legacy of World War I, and of the idea that going to war at any time incurs a huge cost to society through the loss of young lives.

Jim’s Letters is suited for readers aged five to eight years, and is the eighth children’s book by Professor Harper. It will be launched at 5pm, April 11, at Ashhurst School, Ashhurst, complete with classroom displays commemorating World War I. Both author and illustrator will be available to sign copies.


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