I’ve been wanting to review this book for about three years on November 11.
Since moving to the USA, I’ve noticed there are two days in the calendar year I feel like “a Canadian in the USA” rather than my usual muddled “dual citizen” feeling. Both are in November. There’s American Thanksgiving, which I simply dislike intensely. And there’s November 11. In Canada it’s Remembrance Day, in the USA it’s Veterans Day. I don’t dislike Veterans Day, but I have a hard time with it because it eclipses that important word: Remembrance.
Timothée de Fombelle wrote Capitaine Rosalie in French, published by Gallimard Jeunesse, Albums Junior, with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault, one of the greatest illustrators of today.
It was translated to English by Sam Gordon and is published in the USA by Candlewick (this one I got myself three years ago) as Captain Rosalie, and I can’t overpraise the translation. It sings along in the child Rosalie’s voice with the lyricism of the French but the passionate honesty of a child, not sentimental, not adult. It matches Timothée de Fombelle’s skill with words and Isabelle Arsenault’s skill with art.
Rosalie is a small girl who can’t remember a time before the war began, with her father away at the front, her mother working in a factory, and the daily news of a few villages taken and recaptured here and there along the Somme. But she, too, has a secret mission. She is a small girl, 5 years old in 1917, too young for school, but the teacher lets her sit, drawing in her notebook, while her mother works in the factory and her father is off fighting. And while the others might think she is doing nothing, drawing animals with a pencil, she works at her mission.
We get clues, we readers. We know that five-year-old Rosalie, quiet but with red hair like the flame of the match lighting the stove, is no fool and that she prefers honesty to fantasy. The author gives us clues as she relates in the first person that she is watching the teacher writing symbols on the board and her mother reading her letters from her father: “I see that my mother is still reading, for a long time, although there is just a single page of writing in the envelope. I can see that she continues even when the candle stops flickering in the bedroom.” Rosalie is no fool. Isabelle Arsenault gives us clues, too. A full spread of art shows us the charcoal blacks and greys of the students’ clothes, the teacher watching one boy writing at the board, and the flames in the stove the same colour as the fiery passion of Rosalie’s hair– and, we feel, her fierce determination.
Rosalie, we know without being told, wants the truth of what’s in her father’s letters. And that her mission is to find out.
Her mother reads her letters about fishing for trout, cooking meals with walnuts and wild raspberries. She reads to Rosalie of her father fighting while the shells her mother makes fly by with her love and the support of all the women in the factories and the goodness of children like Rosalie in the schools.
These aren’t precisely lies, we readers feel: these must be the letters that Rosalie’s mother is writing in her mind, the letters keeping her going.
But no letters come after one blue envelope arrives on a snowy night.
And Captain Rosalie, seeing her mother crumple in misery, knows she must fulfill her mission soon.
We know before she does, as adult readers with a knowledge of the death toll at the Somme in 2017; child readers may not, though they’ll know it’s not good. Yes, her father was killed, but the real skill is in the telling.
Rosalie has taught herself to read, there at the back of the classroom, and with the help of Edgar, the class dunce, her lieutenant, she gets the letters, and her father’s truth: “At night I cry in the mud,” he writes, “The rain here is made of metal and fire,” and, in absolutely equally true words: “Give Rosalie a kiss.” She reads them for herself, and also the news of his death. And she does get a medal, in the end, when her mother walks in with a Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded posthumously to her father.
This is the kind of book we need, a real Remembrance Day book. The impact of her father’s loss, her mother’s inability to share directly with her, and Rosalie’s flaming determination to find knowledge, are painful. It’s a book that has to be a picture book, not because of the age of the reader (I think my daughter’s only just ready at age 8), but because of the age of the protagonist. Isabelle Arsenault is a necessary storyteller along with Timothée de Fombelle, showing Rosalie’s quiet flame alongside the muted, endangered greyness of the landscape and others. The teacher’s empty sleeve, her mother’s yearning, Edgar’s unspoken support– these are visible, the witnesses to the vicious effects of war even on the relatively safe areas.
I was shattered the first time I read this by the need I’d had for a book of this kind: a book that doesn’t diminish a single character (the mother couldn’t communicate, the father had to go, etc) but highlights, in the end, how warfare itself is a cruelty.
This, in a nutshell, is why I need Remembrance Day on November 11, and why this book is so important, as important as John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Yes, I am grateful for the service of veterans, today and in the past, those who have made it back and those who haven’t. But we must remember that war is cruel, the ravages of violence are real, and that, as Captain Rosalie told her mother: “I wanted to know.” And then she and her mother cry together, horribly necessary tears.
We can’t only have the good news. We need honesty. “Thank you for your service,” absolutely, but also: “I hope, one day, humanity will learn enough of kindness and integrity that nations will lay down our arms and never ask you to serve in war again.”
It’s November 11, and I see I’m finishing this as we come towards the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I will press publish, and then I will be silent for two minutes, reflecting on the sacrifices men and women have made for our safety over here, and I will think of the honesty of their testimony to the horrors of war. And I will pray for peace in future.