Lord of the Nutcracker Men
Susannah D. Ketchum, a former teacher-librarian at the Bishop Strachan
School in Toronto, serves on the Southern Ontario Library Services
Johnny Briggs’s “dad was a toymaker, the finest in London.” In
1913, James Briggs makes a set of wooden soldiers for his son’s ninth
birthday. Then, when Johnny is 10, war starts in Europe and Johnny’s
father enlists. Soon he is sending letters home, describing conditions
at the front. Each letter comes with one or more wooden soldiers
whittled in his spare time. The soldiers exhibit amazing detail: for
example, a sergeant wears “a tiny cap atop a huge head that was nearly
entirely an open, bellowing mouth. I could look down his throat at
little tonsils painted like pink hearts.”
For safety, Johnny’s mother sends him to live with his father’s
spinster sister, Aunt Ivy (“Prickly Ivy”). Aunt Ivy has an enormous
garden, just perfect for fighting imaginary battles. At least, they seem
imaginary, but the letters from the front begin to describe scenes that
are eerily like the battles that Johnny has already fought in his
aunt’s garden, and the model of Johnny’s father begins to change.
“The khaki paint of his clothes had dulled to a moldy green ... His
mouth had once stretched in such a broad grin, but now it was small and
This simply told tale has much to offer both adult and younger readers.
Beautifully written, it is replete with characters who, however small
their role, are fully realized. As well, Lawrence has packed many
subplots into the book’s 205 pages, each as perfectly constructed as
the “nutcracker men” themselves. Another bonus—in an effort to
help Johnny catch up with his classmates, the schoolmaster helps him
read The Iliad, often drawing parallels between the current situation
and the events in Homer’s epic.
With its description of trench warfare and the British home front, Lord
of the Nutcracker Men will be valuable supplementary reading for any
course that deals with World War I. Highly recommended.