Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Time of Fire by Robert Westall

People sometimes ask me what my favorite WWII book is out of all that I have read.  It is hard to answer that question because everything I have read so far has at least some redeeming quality of showing how the war impacted the lives of the children (and the occasional adult or animal.)

One of my favorite authors, however, is Robert Westall.  Westall wrote my favorite WWII animal story, Blitzcat, capturing the influence one cat had on the lives of so many while searching war-torn England looking for her true human, after her owner joined the war effort.

Then I read The Machine Gunners, which I thought wonderful, even if it did have a very unlikable protagonist.  And now I bring to this blog another Westall book, Time of Fire.

Like all his friends, 10 year old Sonny carries his aircraft-recognition book everywhere he goes, so when a German plane drops a bomb on the store where his mother is shopping, killing her, he knows it was a plane they called the Flying Pencil.

In despair, Sonny's father decides to join the RAF to seek revenge on the plane that killed his beloved wife and changed their happy lives forever.  Sonny is sent to live with his grandparents in their coastal home near Newcastle.  As Sonny settles into life with his grandparents, helping them safeguard their home with sandbags and barbed wire, working in the garden and listening to the wireless together for news of the war, he develops a strong relationship with his Granda, a man who patiently answers Sonny's questions and is always willing to teach him about life.  Perhaps the most telling example of that is the way he guides Sonny into slowly and methodically making friends with a war-traumatized dog, whom he eventually wins over and names Blitz.

But Sonny has a guilty conscience.  His Mam was in the store buying matches because Sonny had forgotten about them in his rush to buy the newest copy of Wizard, a magazine for boys.  So when his father's attempt at revenge comes to an end when he is shot down, Sonny decides it is now up to him to avenge his mother's death.

But what can a young boy do?  In a Robert Westall story, plenty!

Unlike the kitty in Blitzcat or Chas in The Machine Gunners, Sonny does not have a strong single- minded focus.  But like them, Sonny is eventually faced with a difficult dilemma.  When faced with having to choose life or death, will he let revenge control his decision or rise above it?

For that reason, and despite being a World War II novel, Time of Fire might still resonates for today's readers.  Revenge seems to have become such a prevalent way of dealing with the small personal injuries in life today, that watching Sonny's struggle between doing the right thing or getting his revenge for his Mam's death might just help decide a future action on a reader's part (assuming we are what we read, of course).

I have to admit that after reading The Machine Gunners, I was a little put off Robert Westall's WWII novels, but I am glad I have now returned to them.  Sonny is a very appealing main character, making it easier to root for him.  And the portrayal of Nana and Granda is superb.  I wish they were my grandparents.  You can just feel the love in their home.  Even the bickering is done with love.  This was the same atmosphere in Sonny's home before his mother was killed and his otherwise happy, content father's personality turned black.  It makes you realize how fleeting happiness can be.

Like Michelle Magorian (Goodnight, Mr. Tom and Back Homeamong others novels) Robert Westall is a master at creating a realistic picture of the British home front in World War II.  Unlike Magorian, Westall really had experienced the war first hand, growing up in the same area that he sets his stories in, always making them so very rich in details not necessarily commonly known.

This book is recommended for readers aged 9+
This book was borrowed from the Seward Park Branch of the NYPL

Robert Westall as a boy in North Shields, England.


  1. Another interesting one Alex. Seems like a mature book for 9 year olds though.

  2. Yes, it is interesting, Zohar, but it really is a book aimed at middle grade readers. Westall portrays the relationship of Sonny and his grandparents so well and the ultimate choice Sonny must make wouldn't be too difficult for kids to relate to.

  3. I haven't read this yet so thanks for bringing it across. Sonny sounds like a character I'd want to know more about.