Triumph of the will

IssueJuly - August 2009
Comment by Jeff Cloves

Not many people know this: the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) is 75 this year. I only know because a woman stopped me in Stroud High Street and told me. Her name turned out to be the same as a poet whose work I know and he turned out to be her father: Ian Serraillier (1912-1994).

Then it turned out he’d written an acclaimed novel for children, The Silver Sword, which has never been out of print in over 50 years. He was a Quaker, a conscientious objector in the Second World War, a school teacher, and a member of the PPU. Furthermore, his publisher was so proud of his work that it published a special golden anniversary edition in 2006. It has an afterword written by his daughter, Jane, but although I’d liked the few poems by her father I’d come across, I had to admit to her I’d never heard of The Silver Sword.

Bedtime reading

A few days later, she sent me a copy and now it’s my bedtime reading to Jay. Altogether, a necklace of connection you might say.

As soon as I got the book I read a bit of it myself to gauge if Jay (just 12) and Patrick (10) might like it. They were, I felt, of the reader-age at which the book was aimed and, sure enough, Jay is loving it.

I’m enjoying reading it to him too and I warmly recommend The Silver Sword to PN readers with children aged (say) 10-14. And here’s why…

It’s a book about the Second World War, written from the point of view of the bombed-out and beaten, the refugees, the lost children and animals, and the hapless occupying soldiers who, by and large, are neither saints nor exclusively sinners.

Whether Russians or Nazis, they are better fed than the rest of his cast but just like them, they too are victims. Ian Serraillier, though, is a strikingly optimistic writer and his book is about human solidarity in the most awful circumstance.

Thus, he avoids armed heroism and valour and patriotism and sacrifice and focuses instead on kindness, generosity, sheer stubbornness, and the will to survive. At its heart, it has that perennial theme: children who lose their parents, look after each other, and are eventually re-united.

When told well, this is always an irresistible story. Add to that theme, a long journey and the exciting adventures that there befall and the sheer longevity of The Silver Sword is easy to understand.

The story is set in Poland during the German occupation and Ruth (13), Edek (11) and Bronia (3) lose their father to a concentration camp, their mother to slave labour in Germany, and their house to revenge destruction. All they have left is belief that their parents are alive and their vague contingency plan that, if separated, the family should re-unite at their grandparents’ house in Switzerland.

The aftermath of violence

When reading the Harry Potter series to Jay and Patrick, I found the graphically-described violence becoming more insistent and increasingly difficult to read. It really upset me.

In contrast The Silver Sword allows the worst things to happen off the page. However, it doesn’t flinch from their implications and what I particularly like is that it tells the harrowing story of an occupied country truthfully.

At the same time, however, it insists the best human values can never be extinguished by the worst. Ian Serraillier’s children are believable, their adventures not too far-fetched and their inevitable recovery of their parents will bring a lump to the throat of any reader – no matter how hard-hearted and unsentimental.

I’ve learned (from Wikipedia) that the success of The Silver Sword was such that the BBC produced it for TV in 1957, and again in 1971. Various proposals for filming it have come to nothing so far, but it is again in production for a two-parter for TV by the BBC. I hope Jay and Patrick get a chance to see it because it is an extraordinary story which, I just know, will work well on screen.

Actually, it is a necklace of stories and Jane Serraillier says that her father’s meticulous postwar research ensured that all the events he used in his book had actually happened and he absorbed them into the story of one family of his own creation. His skill as a writer and his unintrusive skill as a teacher combine so well that his book is both an exciting quest and a compelling history lesson.

I think The Silver Sword has an undeniable period flavour – as have the beautiful drawings by C. Walter Hodges – which I thought might be off-putting for Jay. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The illustrations are unmistakeably 1950s and their power and economy suit the text perfectly.

Altogether this gently-written book exerts an unexpected grip and it’s such a wonderful discovery for me, that I truly wish it had been around when I was 12. I shall wait until Patrick is 11-12 before I read it to him and I hope that he too discovers that good writing and good illustration simply do not date.

Unfortunately, wars never seem to go out of date, and books like The Silver Sword – the sword is a talismanic miniature paperknife incidentally and not a weapon – are still needed to champion wisdom, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and humane enterprise against mechanical destruction. Look no further, dear readers, for your children’s next birthday present. May it never go out of print.

Topics: Culture
See more of: Jeff Cloves