Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Men Are Away at War

by Peter St John

Just over seventy years ago, Hitler's Nazi Germany lunged aggressively out, seeking to set up a "thousand year" rule over the territory and culture of other nations. The momentous world conflict which ensued is mirrored in miniature, in Peter St John's six "Gang" books.

The men in Britain, except for the aged, the unfit, and those with essential civilian occupations, are away at war. The women at home, wait, watch, and work. Poland falls, then France, and the Netherlands too. Hitler's invasion of England waits on the Luftwaffe gaining supremacy in the air. Britain's fate hangs
perilously on the skill and determination of a handful of fatigued fighter pilots, and on the engineering excellence of Spitfires and Hurricanes. London is terror-bombed. The citizens, unsubdued, send their children to the shelter of the countryside and joke about the gang of Nazi thugs. Among the evacuees, an orphan lad arrives in the English village of Widdlington. He, like so many others, possesses nothing, and knows no-one, except for a strict, pious maiden aunt with whom he is to live. He hungers for meaning and a sense of belonging.

This cruel reality provides the background to Peter St John's tales of defiance and challenge, of loss and discovery. There are four gangs of children in Widdlington, each centred on one of the principal streets, and each with its particular set of customs and taboos. A fifth very tough gang, occupies an area on the outskirts of a nearby town. These gangs, not unlike Nazi Storm-troopers, oppose all rivals, defend their territories, and suppress independence. The village school bully, a violent little Hitler, seeks to impose his authority. Can the lonely evacuee escape this oppression? Can he find a way through the perils of the gang territories? Inconveniently for all concerned, he, like proud, indomitable Britain, refuses to
submit to tyranny.

The year is 1940-1941. The siege of island Britain is at its fear-filled height. The Nazi enemy is prowling at the gate. The United States of America has not yet entered the war, except to send supplies and a few volunteers. At this time, just after the marvellously prodigious evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk,
Britain stands alone with deaths, injuries, and destruction. Belts are tight round nervous, taut bellies.

Rationing is in force, and all is scarce. And yet, with faith and unity the people stand together, except that... except that in Widdlington, there is a young evacuee, and a girl, nick-named Jenno.

People have chickens in their backyards and they grow vegetables. Poverty, of course, has always been part of village life, and the children in the "Gang" stories must make do with very little money. As for solidarity among the villagers, it holds but tenuously together under the stressful conditions of war. The
arrival of the evacuee, alas, blows it apart more effectively than ever a German bomb could do.

More strife arises from secrets shared in the gloomy air-raid shelter; or at a fête to raise money to buy a Spitfire aircraft; or again at a contest to gather rose-hips to make syrup for babies; or even from a project to construct a school to train women for farm work. The ramshackle Home Guard has problems defending the village. Lone air-raid wardens patrol at night to catch those who violate the
blackout or who steal precious firewood to eke out a meagre coal ration. Everyone bears in mind the slogan "careless talk costs lives", not least when spies are suspected in Widdlington.

The "Gang" books of Peter St John employ the perplexities and predicaments of the evacuee to explore a small part of what it meant to be involved in the great conflict of 1939-45. The focus is narrowed down to "ordinary" people in every-day life, in an English village at war. It is far from peaceful. There is love and hate, friendship and enmity, loyalty and betrayal. There is poignant tragedy and comic accident.

There are fears, chuckles and tears, as well as moments of doubt, and of confidence. There are times of conflict and times of reconciliation.

The “Gang” books do not provide a history of the Second World War, even less the story of any famous or infamous person. They do, however, tell a tale of real people doing real things, in a real historical situation. The setting is English. The story is fiction based solidly on fact. As to whether it is "English
Historical Fiction", is for the reader to decide.

Author's Amazon Page


  1. The Gang stories tell a tale of real people--particularly children--doing real things, in a real historical situation i.e. in a small village in WWII England. Is this English historical fiction--absolutely!

  2. I love it when History takes a story in its hands and molds it into something quite spectacular.

  3. I have always found this period in time for the British people on the Homefront a test of bravery and strength that they do not fail. These kinds of books will keep the period alive and remind us all of what sacrifices others made.
    Thanks for the post and explanation about your books.

  4. Such a good point is made here that a gang of children can behave like Nazis.
    To avert future horrors it's important to recognize that the Nazi movement was not an utter aberration in human behavior, but that the potential for such behavior lies in many, many people, dormant only for lack of opportunity.
    Films of Hitler show a charming man. Demonizing him leaves us vulnerable to future sinister charmers. Tyrants and mass murderers don't come with caution labels when they're rising to power. And once they are in power, it can be too late for any but the most costly methods to successfully unseat them.

  5. What a great post, Peter!!!


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