Monday, June 18, 2018
The Button War, a Tale of the Great War by Avi
Though Patryk and his six friends like to hang out by the village's water pump, they also have a favorite spot in the woods just outside their village. One day, while playing there, Patryk finds an old button. When his friend Jurek sees it, he demands it be given to him: "Give it. I'm king here!" (pg 5) Jurek is a rather cruel, sneaky boy, an orphan who lives in poverty with a sister that hates him, and he's a boy who has no boundaries in his craving for power. That doesn't stop him from claiming he is a descent of King Boleslaw, making the village and surrounding area rightfully his, including Patryk's found button.
Soon after, Jurek shows Patryk a button from the uniform of a Russian soldier, claiming he cut it off one of the uniforms his older sister had just laundered. Jurek invites Patryk to meet him later that night so he can also get a uniform button. Later that night, they run into another friend, Raclaw, who tells them that the Russian soldiers are leaving the next day because the Germans are coming, as they take him to get his own button.
Sure enough, the Russians leave and the Germans arrive and life changes for everyone in the village. And as the boys pass their buttons for the others to envy and admire, Jurek gets an idea for a contest: "Whoever gets the best buttons, wins. Winner gets to be king. Means everyone has to bow down to him. Best dare ever. Buttons." (pg 62). Only military buttons are acceptable, and no asking for a button, they have to be stolen.
With the Germans come bigger, more dangerous weapons, restrictions on life for all villagers, unwelcome billeting, and very tantalizing buttons. But what begins as a typical dare soon turns dangerously serious and deadly, as Patryk realizes that Jurek will stop at nothing to get the best button and be king over them all. Patryk's plan is to get the best button so he can win and stop the deadly competition.
The Button War is quite simply Avi-brilliant. Like William Golding's Lord of the Flies, it is an allegorical statement about bullies, their will to power, and the people who empower them. In its simplicity, young readers may begin to understand how power struggles, whether in the schoolyard or the world stage, can happen. In this novel, the fallacy of Patryk's thinking he can end the insanity of the contest by getting the better button fails because Jurek keeps changing the rules to the competition so that they are always in his favor, and the boys, including Patryk, continue to feed his craving for power by complying with those changes, thereby giving him the power he so desires.
The setting of the story, a small village in Galicia, is unusual, but I thought it worked perfectly for what Avi was trying to say. It was a small enough place to see how war can impact the lives of people, especially children, and for witnessing the death and devastation that war, world war or button war, brings. In fact, sensitive readers may have difficulty with some of the scenes in this novel.
The Button War is an action-packed, exciting coming-of-age novel. One that I found I couldn't put down once I began reading it. I only wish it has some back matter about WWI, a short history of Galicia, if for no other reason than to find out who King Boleslaw was, and a map, which is always helpful and welcome. On pages 25 and 26, the boys do discuss what country this are in and the answers give some idea of Galicia's history (which I ultimately did look up in the encyclopedia). This doesn't diminish the novel in the least, it just would have in nice to have.
This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Candlewick Press