Thursday, September 17, 2015

"God only wants strong soldiers to fight for him." War Brothers review

Media - especially fiction - tends to warp our perception of Africa. I don't believe I ever received a formal education on the African continent; I don't recall ever learning about African politics, African geography, African history or African current events. At the time of my first trip to the continent, I had read precisely one book about Africa: Ishmael Beah's Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Since that time I've become much more attuned to Africa; besides having made 5 trips in 4 years to 6 different nations, I've read a lot of African history and can even speak knowledgeably about current events in several nations or discusses problems various nations are facing. Considering my love of reading came largely from my affection to comic books, I've naturally been keeping an eye out for comic books about Africa.

Although thus far I haven't read anything which was actually written/drawn by an African, I have at least read several which are about Africa; such a book is War Brothers: the Graphic Novel by my fellow Canadians Sharone E. McKay and Daniel LaFrance, a 2013 Annick Press adaptation of McKay's 2008 novel War Brothers. It's a fictional account of child soldiers in Uganda, but drawn from actual events.

The novel concerns four boys - Jacob, Tony, Paul & Norman - who are kidnapped from their school by the rebellious Lord's Resistance Army of Joseph Kony and made to join his forces in the Sudan. While Tony is quickly made into a soldier, the other boys are used for manual labour. Separated from Tony, the remaining three boys vows to stay together; they soon make cautious alliances with the rebel cook Oteka and an earless girl named Hannah.

The depiction of how normal children become soldiers seems at par with what I've learned about the subject in both Beah's book and Romeo Dallaire's They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children. It seems unfortunate to me that after Tony is forced to help murder one boy, he is thereafter inscrutable. The other boys endure hardships, but Tony is the only one who truly becomes a child soldier and I feel his perspective would have helped heighten the trauma the cast endures; instead, the changes in Tony are observed from a distance by the other boys.

The book also shies away from depicting the worst violence on-panel (likely so that the book wouldn't be drummed out of school libraries). Terrible things do happen in this tale, but because of the books I'd already read on the subject my reaction largely went: "oh, they're fortunate." Of course, even after the boys finally escape the rebels and try to return to their lives, there's still quite a bit of story to tell - the reassimilation is not easy and even though most of the boys did nothing wrong, people assume the worst.

Artist Daniel Lafrance does a commendable job on the cast of characters, imbuing the children with expressions of innocence, terror and trauma. When the character Oteka finally appeared out of fatigues near the end of the book, I was actually surprised to realize he was a teenager, barely older than the others - the costuming seemed to add years to his appearance and the shedding of the military outfit restored his youthfulness.

In a postscript the author remarks, "We can realize a world without child soldiers." She first told this tale in 2008. By 2012, when social media lit up over "Kony 2012," Kony remained in power. By the arrival of the 2013 graphic novel, the situation still hadn't changed. And as I write this in 2015... well, we have to continue hoping and praying for change.

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