In my review of Ice in Sunlight, I mentioned how often I felt teary reading of the protagonist’s pain and journey to healing and love. Well, perhaps I’m feeling especially sappy this month, though I think it’s more to do with excellent writing, because Stewart Jackel’s Albert’s Wars had me crying for the last 50 pages.
Albert’s Wars tells the story of two boys who end up lying about their age and joining up the armed services during World War II, though for very different reasons. Albert, with a passion for machines but in trouble with local authorities, joins the navy while Harry, looking to escape from a father he doesn’t get on with, joins the infantry.
We follow their separate paths for a while until fate brings them together – the ship on which Harry finds himself is sunk by enemy fire and it’s Albert’s ship that rescues him from the sea. Albert finds half drowned, barely conscious and delirious Harry in his cabin, and instructed to look after him. No punches are pulled in the realism of his state, including having soiled himself, and Albert’s non-judgemental and compassionate care of him is thoughtfully handled in the writing.
It’s a potentially awkward first meeting, but this is war and it’s the least of the terrible things to happen to combatants. A deep friendship springs up almost instantly between Harry and Albert, who share a cabin and all kinds of shenanigans until Harry can be returned to the army.
It’s also clear early on that Albert is gay, and that his feelings for Harry run deeper than friendship – but that friendship is plenty deep and plenty reciprocated. In defending Albert from a bullying superior officer, who accuses Harry of being Albert’s ‘soapy’, Harry declares, “I’m not his and he’s not mine, but if he was anybody’s I’d be proud that I was his.”
Albert’s Wars is about these boys and their friendship – but it’s also about war, and therefore about the cost of war.
Hence the crying I mentioned at the start.
Because in war, terrible things happen and you lose people you love: suddenly, stupidly, tragically. After becoming so fond of Albert and Harry and invested in their friendship we are faced with the loss of one of them. Jackel proceeds to delicately and with great compassion lead us through the grieving with the survivor.
Jackel tells Albert and Harry’s story with a robust 1940s Aussie vernacular and an energetic style that keeps you engaged from the start. The period slang could easily be too much, but instead it provides a vivid cultural and personal background for Albert, from Fitzroy, and Harry from Wangaratta. The language feels true to the era and to each of the boys’ backgrounds, and reminded me of ways in which my grandfathers used to speak.
It certainly works to create a rich background and to paint pictures of these two lively, likeable lads in their home lives, in training, in their deep friendship and in their grief.
Jackel has written a vivid, very Australian yet very individual account of two young men at war. It’s textured, humane and deeply moving and I hope one day that a hinted-at sequel will come to pass. I’d like to find out what happens next.
Buy Albert’s War