By Lynley Dear (Craig Print)
Steven Spielberg’s epic World War II movie Saving Private Ryan was one of those gut-wrenching stories that stayed with you long after you walked out of the theatre.
The tale of the search for the fourth and only surviving Ryan brother, so he can be sent home to safety, is all the more harrowing because it was inspired by the real-life Niland brothers.
However, there’s another equally sad story of wartime loss that isn’t so well-known, even though it happened much closer to home.
The Christophers brothers all grew up in Southland, all attended Southland Boys’ High School and, sadly, all died in the Great War.
Like Steven Spielberg, Invercargill author Lynley Dear has made the story a mix of fiction and non-fiction, using the true story as inspiration. The result is what she has subtitled an interpretation rather than a novel.
This was an incredibly clever move because it gives the reader the opportunity to get inside the heads of the main characters, four young men she has renamed the Cunningham brothers, and has allowed Dear to make their stories flow in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if this had been written as a non-fiction historical account of the events.
And it’s the getting inside their heads and getting to know them that makes this book such a good read.
They become real, three-dimensional people and it becomes difficult to not feel the pain, the fear and the bravery of the brothers and of those left behind.
These young men were part of a generation decimated by war and it is hard for someone of my generation to imagine what it was like dealing with that trauma.
Everyone talked about the intensity of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, which covered the brutal bloodshed of the Omaha Beach landing at Normandy on June 6, 1944.
However, for me it was the gritty realness of the story in its quieter times that struck a chord: the fear, bravery and honesty.
And there was also empathy for a mother facing the possibility of having to bury all four of her sons.
Poppy Boys has that very same impact, making you care about the brothers so that even though you know the outcome of each of their stories, you are still a little shocked when death inevitably happens to each of them.
There’s also a twist at the end that makes a valid statement about the squandering of young lives.
This book is a great read but it’s also much more than that: it’s an important record of what happened to a generation of young men and the families they left behind.