A brilliant yet underrated book

From Robert Westall's website
From Robert Westall’s website

The Machine-Gunnersboys will be boys.

When we think of World War II, we think of soldiers in the trenches, the aerial dogfights, the huge naval battles. What doesn’t spring to mind quite so regularly is life at home, and when it does, it is a Dad’s Army life, a life of soldiers out of the war. What most people don’t think of is regular, day to day life. Everyone’s heard of the bombing, and the rationing-but what happened apart from that, what happened in their 9-5 day? More pressingly, what did the children do? Many had no school, due to bombing or lack of staff, so what did they do with their days? It’s most children’s dream to not have school, and to have free reign over their daily activities. So a book which focusses on the lesser known, less glamorous side of war, on the life of the children is welcome. Such a book exists, and that is the basis of today’s review-it is called The Machine-Gunners, and was written by Robert Westall.

In Garmouth, in the north of the UK, there is regular bombing, school rarely, and no contact with real live Germans to speak of. There is a booming schoolboy trade in ‘souvenirs’, tail fins of bombs, shrapnel, even bullet casings. Chas McGill has a brilliant collection, but it is second best in Garmouth, so when he has an opportunity to make it the best, he doesn’t hesitate. Even when that opportunity is to be exploited by trying to remove a machine gun from a crashed German bomber. With a dead German inside. Chas and his friends try and construct a fortress, much to the distress of their teachers, parents, and adults in general.

all the marks of a classic

Based on a true story of some Dutch children in World War II, The Machine-Gunners’s intricate plot is a quaint and beautiful portrayal of the hazards of growing up in wartime, dead relatives, whole streets being destroyed in minutes, the stress to all around, and the possibility of being blown to bits or shot. The telling is highly realistic, the children who became men, who grew up far too fast because of the loss of friends, homes, family-parents even. Westall’s telling is captivating, and the reader gets a fantastic association with Chas and his friends, we genuinely feel for them throughout their journey, even when their choices are poor.

My only issue with the book is the ambiguous ending. Westall creates a close which is undeniably dramatic, but I dislike the way that loose threads are not tied off: I had to look up the ending to re-assure myself that I understood what had happened. That being said, ambiguous endings work both ways, and it can feasibly be argued to be a great feature of the book.

I cannot understand why this is not more widely known: it has all the marks of a classic; it has panache and style, it has heart-moving scenes and ‘don’t do that’ scenes, it has sparkling dialogue and an unstoppable plot. Maybe it’s just not dull enough, or the ending doesn’t ruin the lives of anyone even mentioned in passing? I’ll never know, but I do know that it is deserving of so much more recognition than it gets. A brilliant yet underrated book.

Opening words:

When Chas awakened, the air-raid shelter was silent.

Character development-beautifully done, Westall scene sets so well that the reader cannot help but empathise with each and every character mentioned-★★★★★

Readability-not very long, and with high drama on every page, this is a captivating book that you cannot put down-★★★★★

Overall-brilliant in every way, except from the mildly ambiguous ending which I wasn’t a fan of. Other than that, it should be a classic book read by every generation, to remember the horrors they could so easily have been born into-★★★★½ (88)

Agree? Disagree?

Have you read The Machine-Gunners or other similar books? Did you agree or disagree with my review? Please leave a comment or contact me, I would be interested to discuss it. Otherwise, please share with the buttons below and rate.

9 thoughts on “A brilliant yet underrated book

  1. Ooo! I may have to put this one on my reading list. Sounds wonderful. I’m a WWII junkie. In fact I just finished an interesting one called “The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan. It’s about the actual building of the bomb and how know one knew what they were working on. It was a massive undertaking that covered three states. Very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep. It started right at the beginning of the project with how the government went looking for land to buy. Had to be huge and off the map. The main plant was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, from which they had to displace a lot of people. The most interesting thing to me was the reaction of the workers after the bomb was dropped and they finally knew what they were working on. Very diverse. Lots of pictures.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. In turn, that reminds me of the development of the tank, for World War I. The workers were told that it was a portable water tank for the desert. hence the abbreviation ‘tank’.


      3. The Tank. Hm… Tell me more. I’ve never heart of that. Of course I’ve been cloistered with WWII stuff for the last five or six years. Sounds interesting. What was it?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Quoting directly from the magazine ‘How It Works’:
        “The tank emerged out of a need for an armoured vehicle that could traverse the muddy terrain of the Westerm Front of World War I. The army weren’t interested, but the First Lord of the Admiralty – future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – saw potential in the idea and adopted it as a Royal Navy project, forming the Landships Committee in February 1915. A contract was put out to William Tritton, chairman of William Foster & Co, a company based in Lincoln and best known for producing threshing machines, steam tractors and traction engines, to produce a prototype ‘landship’ using two caterpillar tracks. Developed in great secrecy, factory workers were told they were constructing mobile water carriers for use in the desert. Because the abbreviation WC also meant toilet, the factory employees started calling it a ‘water tank’ instead. The word ‘tank’ stuck, while the word ‘landship’ quite obviously didn’t!”
        On a slight tangent, it is a great all round magazine.


      5. Interesting. We saw the movie Fury not long ago about an American Sherman tank crew fighting a German Tiger Tank. I understand those German tanks were real bad arses. It was a good movie (though I’m not a Brad Pitt fan).

        Liked by 1 person

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