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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Half a Man, written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Gemma O'Callaghan. Candlewick, Random House. 2015. $19.00 ages 10 and up

"I couldn't help myself.
I had to look again at the
forbidden places. He had
three half-fingers on one
hand and no fingers at all
on the other. His top lip
had almost completely
disappeared, and one of
his ears was little more
than a hole in his head."

Not all of the scars of war are visible, as many of our returning military troops and their families know. In Michael's grandfather's case, the physical scars are all too visible. They do not in any way account for the internal scars that are also a part of each waking day for him.

Michael vividly remembers the nightmares he had as a child. One of the enduring ones seemed to coincide with his grandfather's infrequent visits. In the dream, he sees a great ship going down in flames, men on fire jumping into the sea, and his grandfather swimming in search of a lifeboat and a modicum of safety. No one will help the man who comes to the side of the boat and raises a pleading hand which has no fingers.

Before each visit, his parents warn Michael never to stare at the injuries his grandfather has incurred as a sailor on a merchant marine vessel during WWII. A torpedo sank the ship, killing many and leaving his grandfather with ghastly scars on his face and hands. When the time comes for Michael to spend summers with him, fishing and living at his island home, Michael learns a lot.

"He was silent, I discovered, because he liked to keep to himself. I'm a bit the same, so I didn't mind. He wasn't at all unkind or morose, just quiet. He'd read a lot in the evenings, for hours, anything about boats - Arthur Ransome, C.S. Forester, and Patrick O'Brian. He didn't have a television, so I'd read them too. I think I must have read every book Arthur Ransome wrote during my summers on Scilly."

It is not until Michael is 18 and out of high school that his grandfather shares the full story of the horror that changed his life. He explains that his disfigurement and the choices he made following his return led his wife to leave him, taking his daughter (Michael's mother). He says that he understands:

 “No one wants a monster for a husband. No one wants half a man….”

His death, and a note left to his grandson asking that the family gather to scatter his ashes in the sea he so loved, is the catalyst for some healing. This is an emotional tale told with the grace we have come to admire in Michael Morpurgo's powerful writing.

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