Gang Warfare: As War Clouds Tower Sweets Turn Sour
(Book II of the Gang series)
by Peter St. John
See the trailer for the newest Gang novel here or below!
The Blitz over London, one of the most infamous events of World War II, inspired countless works of music, art, film and literature, fiction and non-fiction, and while we know many details are shrouded in the mysteries of time lost and faded, there nevertheless is so much documented it has filled studios, libraries, museums—and more—all over the world.
Yet somehow the children of this era don’t seem to have quite the audience as do other people and events that have grabbed the spotlight in urgency, horror and remembrance. In general terms, we do know that childhood was much less regulated than it is today: children could travel far and stay out late; they played in gangs and made up stories created from a space within their own experiences and imaginations. Like children of today, their play often reflected a need to make sense of the world, whatever the circumstances.
Author Peter St. John draws on his own childhood to give us a closer glimpse of the world of one group of children during this time, particularly an orphan evacuee come from London to live with his auntie. Impatient and no-nonsense, she rarely believes what he says or upbraids him when she does.
The narrative centers around what becomes a colossal misunderstanding, initiated when a school bully knocks a bag of allsorts from the boy’s hand, leading to accusations from the bully’s mother—who also is the school caretaker—that her son was the victim. As the trivial incident’s aftermath gains speed, one sorry event leads to another and the boy finds himself in trouble or having to answer to peers and adults alike for more than his share. Grown-up rivalries intensify as the entire village begins to fragment: legal proceedings result in the formation of factions, church memberships and volunteer activities suffer, and a huge fight erupts at a fund raiser followed by the loss of all proceeds. Later, a catastrophic event occurs that has the capacity to further disintegrate relationships or bring everyone together.
Throughout the novel, St. John’s protagonist, named but once in the story, speaks to God, another way he tries to make sense of it all, offering statements and asking questions as to why certain events happen or on the nonsensical nature of their outcome. True to children’s tendency, the boy displays a wisdom often lost on many adults:
“You know—when I think about it really hard—I don’t think You work like that at all. You don’t come galloping up like the US cavalry to help this person or that person, just because they’re in trouble or they pray the loudest. It’s more like You’re there all the time ready to advise. But even Your advice is no good if nobody’s listening.”
The author does an absolutely marvelous job of portraying children’s lives, whether seeing them and their peers through the eyes of one character, of creating an understanding often lost as we grow, as to why this or that means so much to them. It’s a funny thing, sometimes, to observe what children perceive as important and valuable, and what they will do to maintain or protect it. All the while, their vulnerability shines through and we realize how crucial it is to allow them these custodial roles in preparation for responsible and compassionate adulthood. That St. John so succinctly communicates this via those with the least voice in society is a testament to his expertise in character development and plot continuity.
Indeed, as events move forward we see that, true to life in any era, the boy’s path is host to other episodes even as he maintains singular goals: keeping out of trouble, saving enough money to buy the village idiot a pair of pajamas, for example. Though told in first person, the narrative also honestly gives voice to other characters and our protagonist judiciously weighs what he sees, hears and experiences, captured so poignantly by St. John’s keen eye for personality and detail.
A note about appeal: The book’s blurb reads in part that “Gang Warfare is a novel for all readers from nine to ninety-nine.” I couldn’t agree more with this assessment (except perhaps to expand these parameters a bit): events portrayed, while focusing on the village’s children, include many ages and a variety of temperaments. Readership might include the curious, young or old; those who lived through the war (or any other) or had relatives who did; early childhood educators; schoolchildren; people of all ages interested in childhood in different eras; lovers of historical fiction—and the list goes on.
St. John’s style also captures the imagination and flows so smoothly it is easy to read large chunks at a time without feeling the need to put the book down. In fact, it is so engaging I often found myself struggling to do just that in order to attend to other tasks. This is especially telling, given the accented speech of a couple of characters, Jenno in particular as she appears more often, whose presence made me wonder before I started to read if that would detract from the experience. It doesn’t, and that may be because St. John follows the “less is more” ideal, resulting in a character whose persona and what she has to say take the stage, rather than how she says anything. And while there are occasional phonetic spellings, the result remains a delightful rhythm with no need for author micro management. St. John has created a character who speaks for herself, with the dual result of readers enjoying her speech and marveling at what a clever girl she truly is.
“Oi reckon that were about the biggest tree in the village. Old Farmer Catchpole’ll ‘ave a roight ‘ard job clearin’ it away—nearly all ‘is workers are called up in the army.”
“Maybe ‘ee’ll get some women ter ‘elp,” suggested Jenno.
“Don’t be daft,” said her brother scathingly. “That ain’t women’s work.”
“Soon women will ‘ave ter do everyfink,” contradicted Jenno. “Mark moi words. Just as soon as there ain’t enough men ter go round because of the war. An’ that’s now already.”
Gang Warfare is an absorbing read, perhaps more so because St. John’s story includes all of us: we’ve all been children or are at this time, and most of us have learned or are learning about the war years. Children might find some respite from the grind of daily misunderstandings and the tale takes grown-ups back in time, perhaps recalling when they didn’t have the words they needed and experienced injustice because of that.
But it is also a lively story filled with the magnificence of childhood and its attendant activities, performed in war as well as peacetime, many illustrated in colorful pictures (some superimposed on photos) with a delightful childlike vision. Adding that view to the evacuee’s tale brings even more dimension to it as we come to understand, really, it is our story as well.
I can hardly recommend Gang Warfare enough, except perhaps to say that although it is a standalone in the Gang series, the others must certainly be experienced as well. Peter St. John had created a tale for all people, of all people, absolutely not to be missed.
About the author…
Peter St John was born in London. The orphanage where he lived was destroyed in 1940 by Hitler’s blitz. He was evacuated from the ruins to the countryside.
“Grammar” school was “Granpa” school: young men at battle replaced by oldies. As an eager Air Force pilot, Peter navigated the winds, envied the birds, and learned the “arts” of war.
Back in Civvy street, Peter discovered marriage, fatherhood and Australia. He studied engineering and put letters after his name.
Aimed for the moon at Woomera, but hit the rusty desert instead. Then came Sputnik, and the Cold War space-race. Peter rocketed to lend a hand in Europe, and discovered Paris, languages, and ELDO (the long-defunct European Launcher Development Organisation). An office on three continents; one in sweltering French Guyana. Who’d volunteer for Devil’s Island except to rocket into space? But Europe’s leap to orbit was crippled by political irresolution (subsequently re-activated as the European Space Agency).
So back to Australia where Peter now daily took “the liberty boat from shore” to reach the Navy’s concrete HQ “ship” in Canberra. But the project for which he strove never saw the sea. His ship was again scuttled by politics. Disgruntled and unemployed, Peter set off for Parliament House, where he was offered a job helping senators peer critically over government’s shoulder, and bring Parliament’s Standing Committees to the people. And then the PM asked him to join his staff!
But soon the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva called, requesting participation in strengthening parliamentary democracy around the world. Six challenging years for Peter…
And so to fiction, with his first novel published in 2007. This has been followed by eight more.
Peter lives in France where he is active in the promotion of creative activities. He has a son, two grandsons, a great-grandson and a great-granddaughter.
You can follow and learn more about author Peter St. John and his work at his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. Gang Warfare may be purchased at Amazon, Amazon UK, Wordery, Book Depository and Silverwood Books.
On Monday August 8, the seventh book in the Gang series, Gang America, is scheduled for release. Be sure to check out this and the rest of Peter St. John’s fabulous-looking books at Amazon and elsewhere!
All images courtesy Peter St. John
The blogger was provided a complementary copy of Gang Warfare: As War Clouds Tower Sweets Turn Sour in exchange for an honest review.