Saturday, June 11, 2016

A children's war story that gives another perspective of what happened at Featherston in 1942

Enemy Camp by David Hill, Penguin Random House NZ

Being a great fan of New Zealand historical stories, I was keen to read this riveting tale about the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Featherston in 1942/1943. The story is written in diary format by 12-year-old Ewen, whose father is a guard at the camp. It focuses on Ewen, his best friend Barry, and Barry’s 10-year-old brother Clarry. Clarry recently caught polio, and is using crutches and leg braces to get round. The main plot thread is the uneasy relationship between the Japanese prisoners and the New Zealand guards, and the narrative tension steadily tightens as the fateful date draws close – 25 February 1943.

When the climax of a story is already known, it takes much skill to weave a plot that keeps the reader’s interest right up to the big event. David Hill does this superbly by developing sympathetic characters along with excellent secondary plot strands (eg. Clarry’s recovery, coping with life in a country at war, a respectful relationship between the boys and a Japanese officer).

The shootings are is not glossed over in any way. When the riot occurred the New Zealand guards opened fire and 31 Japanese were killed instantly, 17 died later, and 74 were wounded. The boys witness the terrible happenings, and their subsequent trauma is gut-wrenching.

The publisher’s blurb says it’s suitable for 9 to 14-year-old readers. I’d be a bit cautious about the lower end of the scale – maybe better to say 10-year-olds, and mature ones at that. Highly recommended as an addition to intermediate and secondary school library collections on the topic of New Zealand at war.

ISBN 978 0 14 330912 3 RRP $19.99 Pb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman

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