Stephen Dando Collins
Random House 2014
pbk., 290pp., RRP $A17.99
Set in the dying days of World War 1 in the battlefields of Villers-Bretonneux, France, Tank Boys is the story of three young lads – Frankie Pickles and Taz Dutton from Australia and Richard Rix from Germany – and how the events of April 1918 bring them inexorably together. All three of them, either by fate or by choice, have found themselves on the front line instead of still being in school. Frankie deliberately lied about his age so he could join ‘the big adventure’; Taz feels guilty about staying home after his two brothers have already sacrificed their lives, and Richard is there because his grandfather didn’t bother to fix an error on official documents. But regardless of their reasons each is called on to do what would be thought unthinkable for today’s 16 year-olds and each is forever change because of that. It’s a story of friendship and relationships built on respect and understanding through common experiences.
A skilfully woven mixture of fact and fiction, of characters and real people, this story tells of the first ever tank-versus-tank battle and how the mighty Mephisto, the massive German panzer A7V tank, has come to be on display at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. Told from both sides of the events, it tells of life in the trenches, the deadly perils of bombardments and mustard gas and constant shelling for Frankie and Taz, and it tells of life in an elite tank division for Richard. Starting out as separate chapters but becoming closer and closer as their fates seem destined to meet until all three are literally on the same page, this was an engrossing account of a battle that we are only just starting to learn and teach about in schools, showing that World War I was about more than the events at Gallipoli in 1915. It is realistic but not gory and it’s quite possible to empathise with all three boys. It personalises the cold facts of the history texts.
Written by the author of Caesar the War Dog and made more compelling by the evidence that the events really did take place, this is a book that will particularly engage boys from Year 4 and beyond, especially as the events of World War I are brought more and more into focus as the centenary commemorations become more widespread. If I were on class, I’d earmark as my read-aloud novel for that time.