Susan Fisher says writing Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land: English-Canadian Children and the First World War had an unexpected personal benefit: It helped her understand the world in which her parents grew up.
Fisher, whose book has won this year’s Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences Canada Prize for Humanities for an English-language work, says both her grandfathers fought in the First World War, and their experiences had an effect on their families.
By studying how children on the home front reacted and responded to the war, she says she came to a better understanding of the values and behaviour of an entire generation.
Fisher says she became interested in the topic when she discovered, while doing research for another project, that there are quite a lot of children’s books about the Great War being published right now.
“I found this fascinating,” she says. “We don’t associate the carnage on the Western Front with the realms of children’s literature, but there you are!”
She began wondering whether the way children on the home front were being depicted in these books was an accurate reflection of what had happened.
“The only way I was going to find out was to go back and see what children were reading during the war years,” she says.
So she began researching material aimed at children, including Sunday school magazines.
What she discovered – and what she relates in her book – is that children were actively involved in the war effort in a number of ways.
Children knit socks and made pyjamas and other comforts to send to the soldiers. They held fundraising bazaars. They took over the chores of fathers or older brothers who had gone off to fight. Boys joined the cadets. There was even a farmerettes program to get teenaged girls participating in the harvest.
Fisher was struck by the underlying values that supported these activities.
“I found that lots and lots of stories about the war emphasized the themes of service and sacrifice,” she says, adding that children bought into these values – particularly since, if they did not have a family member in the war, they almost certainly knew people from their neighbourhood who had signed up.
“I was touched by the earnestness of these children,” says Fisher. “Many children in Canada were committed to doing their bit. They enjoyed doing it and they had fun and they enjoyed being part of this national effort.”
Fisher says she was also surprised to find how much direct information about the war the children had. Children, she says, were not shielded from hard realities.
“The rhetoric was surprisingly bloodthirsty in some of the patriotic plays the kids put on,” she says.
Fisher says she also fascinated to discover, in the period works aimed at children, how important topics can be trivialized for entertainment purposes and still convey core values.
Susan R. Fisher teaches in the Department of English at the University of the Fraser Valley. Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land: English-Canadian Children and the First World War is published by University of Toronto Press.