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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Silver Donkey, written by Sonya Hartnett with illustrations by Don Powers. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $19.00 ages 10 and up

"...but in rare moments of quiet, the enemy could be heard talking and laughing and worrying with each other. The enemy soldiers sounded young - some of them had the fresh voices of boys. The lieutenant supposed that some of them played the flute or carved wood or could draw; and that all of them had mothers and fathers waiting and wondering at home."

While wandering in the woods near their home, two young girls are quite impressed to discover a corpse. In fact, the man is alive and it turns out, he is blind. His name is Lieutenant Shepard. He is a Brit who has walked away from the trenches and terrors of WWI. His blindness is likely a result of what he has seen in those trenches, and what has happened to the men in his command.

He wants to find his way home, from France to England to help his younger, ailing brother. There is great fear that he will be caught and returned to the front as a deserter.

The girls promise to keep his secret. They bring him a blanket for warmth, a pillow, and as much food as they can pilfer from their family's very meager pantry. There is not much.
In exchange for their kindness and because Coco is particularly interested in the small silver donkey that is his good luck charm, he shares four allegorical stories of patient, brave, loyal, kind and hard-working donkeys throughout history. The children are enchanted. In speaking with them, he also shares some of the terrors of the war and his experiences. They are never graphic or terrifying to the children, but they are definitely informative and enlightening when considering the costs of war.

The girls realize that they cannot possibly make the plan needed to help the blind man find his way across the English Channel and on to the road home. Their older brother Pascal is entrusted with formulating a plan. Pascal is more interested in hearing the horrors and glory of war; the soldier is reluctant to share too much. The donkey stories offer a very different picture of sacrifice and peace. Finally, Pascal sets a plan in motion by telling Fabrice, a polio victim who is discouraged by his inability to help with the fighting. He agrees to use his motorcycle and a borrowed boat to take Lieutenant Shepard across the Channel to safety.

If you have read Sonya Hartnett's work, you will know her enduring ability to give her readers characters that matter, incomparable and elegant storytelling, writing finesse, and books that you just want to share with anyone who loves beautiful writing. There are so many moments to savor. Her finely drawn fables of peace and giving are needed by many in the world today.

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