So much has already been written about the First World War that it can be difficult to say something new. However, using Ernest Dalziel, a fell runner and soldier, as his inspiration, Tom Palmer has created a poignant story with different voices which manages deftly to explore painful memories of the war while keeping a foot firmly in the present. The beautiful repeated illustrations at the foot of every page reinforce this connection.
Armistice Runner is about Lily’s passion for fell-running, which requires resilience and commitment, and her growing awareness of her grandmother’s deterioration due to dementia. Alzheimer’s is not an easy topic for children’s literature, yet the author sketches the close relationship between Lily and her grandmother clearly. The feistiness of Gran and her lucid moments make sure she is not a token peripheral character but central to the story. Lily’s great-great-grandfather’s wartime diaries provide a crucial link that brings past and present together through the act of remembering.
The detailed descriptions of the Cumbrian landscape ground the story and give it continuity and gravitas. The contrasting view from the trenches is constantly in the reader’s mind. Of the French countryside, Ernest writes in his diary ‘It’s tame, no wilderness. Except for the bullets and shells, tanks and aeroplanes.’ Detailed descriptions of landscape are central to the story and I was reminded of Gill Lewis’s Sky Hawk, which uses the landscape of the North-west to equally powerful effect.
Early on in the story, the author gently reinforces his purpose in writing Armistice Runner. ‘But Lily reminded herself that this wasn’t a story. This was a diary. It was real, not a story created to play with her emotions.’ What struck me most was the clear message of the power of writing. This is reinforced with literary references, woven throughout with purpose. We have a fleeting reference to the wartime poets and comments on Wordsworth in relation to the Lakes but the focus is clearly on the form of the diary. The running logs transform into a raw, authentic reflection on life in the trenches. There is no doubt that the act of writing is celebrated in this story, as is the transformational power of reading, in this case letters from the past.
Despite the dual storylines, the rawness of the First World War experience is evident in the diary entries: ‘The main danger now isn’t the snipers and shellfire. It is the chaos the Germans leave behind – blowing up bridges, felling trees across roads and burning out all the roofs. So, as we advance, there’s no cover from the rain. Nowhere to rest.’ Like Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, Tom Palmer has created a powerful story of the First World War. It could be used in opper junor and lower secondary classrooms and to support a topic on the First World War. Comparing it to War Horse might also prove fruitful.
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