B for Buster

B for Buster

4.3 3
by Iain Lawrence

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Nicknamed after his hometown of Kakabeka, Canada, Kak dreams of flying with the Allied bombers in World War II. So at 16, underage and desperate to escape his abusive parents, he enlists in the Canadian Air Force. Soon he is trained as a wireless operator and sent to a squadron in England, where he’s unabashedly gung ho about flying his first op. He thinks the… See more details below


Nicknamed after his hometown of Kakabeka, Canada, Kak dreams of flying with the Allied bombers in World War II. So at 16, underage and desperate to escape his abusive parents, he enlists in the Canadian Air Force. Soon he is trained as a wireless operator and sent to a squadron in England, where he’s unabashedly gung ho about flying his first op. He thinks the night ops over Germany will be like the heroic missions of his favorite comic-book heroes. Good will vanquish evil. But his first time out, in a plane called B for Buster, reveals the ops for what they really are—a harrowing ordeal.

The bombing raids bring searchlights . . . artillery from below . . . and night fighters above hunting to take the bombers down. One hit, Kak knows, and B for Buster, along with him and his six crewmates, could be destroyed.

Kak is terrified.

He can’t confide his feelings to his crew, since he’s already worried that they’ll find out his age. Besides, none of them seem afraid. Only in Bert, the slovenly caretaker of the homing pigeons that go on every op, does Kak find an unlikely friend. Bert seems to understand what the other men don’t talk about—the shame, the sense of duty, and the paralyzing fear. As Kak seeks out Bert’s company, he somehow finds the strength to face his own uncertain future.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This story, told through the eyes of a 16-year-old who lies about his age to enlist, presents "a gritty, unglorified picture of what it was like to be a fighter pilot during WWII," according to PW's starred review. Ages 12-up. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
A 16-year-old boy nicknamed "Kak," after his hometown of Kakabeka, lies about his age and enlists in the Canadian Air Force, dreaming of glory fighting the Germans in WW II. Trained as a wireless operator and sent to England, Kak is excited about flying his first night "op" in a rickety old bomber named B for Buster. Once in the air, he learns what war is really like: a combination of terror and horror. He is frightened of death, and frightened to death, but he believes that everyone else is brave and he is afraid to confess his fears to his crewmates. He gradually befriends an older man named Bert, who takes care of the homing pigeons that accompany every flight, and finds that he can confide in him. One of Bert's pigeons, the dauntless Percy, becomes Kak's good luck charm and even helps save his life, in this sobering look at the real nature of war, fear, courage, and heroism. Lawrence, the author of The Wreckers, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, and other novels for YAs, writes evocatively and movingly about Kak's experiences. He provides an author's note at the end giving some personal and historical background, and includes a glossary of terms. A gripping tale. KLIATT Codes: JS*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2004, Random House, Delacorte, 320p., and Ages 12 to 18.
—Paula Rohrlick
Children's Literature
The accomplished Canadian author Iain Lawrence follows his moody The Lightkeeper's Daughter with an insightful story about the stresses of Allied bombers during World War II. His young hero, Kak, is really young. He has lied about his age and enlisted at sixteen to become a wireless operator for a bombing squad flying out of England. With youthful exuberance, he bounds off on his first night flight over Germany—to return as old as the rest of his prematurely aging crew. The fatality rates are disastrous, and as his missions pile up—shortening the odds of survival—Kak finds the courage to continue only through the wisdom of the flight base's pigeoneer. Through loving the birds that fly with each plane, Kak finally bonds with his fellow crew members. The evocative cover art, the useful maps of the European theater of war in 1943, and the expansive Author's Note at the end of the book are all icing on the cake of Lawrence's moving story. Kak is a believable character who brings to life the drama, pain, and moral issues of fighting blindly against a known enemy. 2004, Delacorte, Ages 12 up.
—Kathleen Karr
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-Filled with Buck Rogers-inspired dreams of heroic battles against the forces of evil and partly to escape an abusive, alcoholic father, 16-year-old Kak lies about his age to enlist in the Canadian Air Force in 1943. He becomes a wireless operator, flying night bombing raids over Germany from a base in Yorkshire. His fellow crew members on the antiquated Halifax bomber, B for Buster, have no idea Kak is underage, but his secret is well known to squadron member Donny Lee, another native of tiny Kakabeka. Before his own final flight, Donny urges Kak to reveal his age to their CO and be sent home, but the teen refuses, unable to imagine the overwhelming fear and terrifying dreams he will experience after his first mission. Kak's one solace is his growing friendship with Bert, the caretaker of the homing pigeons that are sent along on every op to carry back news of the fates of any bombers that don't return. One pigeon becomes Kak's good-luck companion. The pigeoneer's own secret past gives him a particularly deep empathy for Kak's fears and efforts to comprehend the nature of bravery and duty. Just as he did so masterfully in Lord of the Nutcracker Men (Delacorte, 2001), Lawrence captures the eagerness and idealism of the new recruit slowly turning to disillusionment and horror as he experiences the grim realities of battle and death. This is a lyrical coming-of-age novel and a fascinating bit of aviation history.-Ginny Gustin, Sonoma County Library System, Santa Rosa, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
It's 1943 and Kak is eager to join the war. He lies about his age, makes himself an orphan, and runs away to enlist in the Canadian Air Force. A hometown hero and experienced flier warns him, "You'll fly an op or two, then beg me to get you out." Sure enough, war is nothing like comic-book heroes vanquishing evil. Kak has nightmares of falling out of the sky, he fears waiting, and he fears flying, "hurtling through space above a planet made of fire." This is a familiar story elevated by eloquent writing, a fast-paced plot, and research neatly woven into the narrative. A long author's note supplies background information. A fascinating angle on the fliers is their use of pigeons as message carriers from downed planes, and a slovenly pigeoneer named Bert befriends Kak and helps him through hard times. A sure hit for fans of war stories and adventures. (maps, glossary) (Fiction. 12=)

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
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12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

I left a town where fewer than a thousand people lived. I traveled half the world, in the middle of a war, to get away from there. By the spring of 1943, when I finally arrived at a lonely airfield among the hills of Yorkshire, it seemed I had gone as far from Kakabeka as the moon was from the earth. But the first thing I saw when I walked through the door of the sergeants' mess was a guy I knew from home.

He was standing beside the piano, and I saw him only from the back, but I knew right away it was Donny Lee. No one else had hair as red as that, or ears as wide as those. No one but Donny looked so much like a clown from the back.

I thought of running away, but there was nowhere to go. I wanted to hide, but I couldn't. Lofty and Ratty and Buzz had come in behind me, filling the door of the Nissen hut. I just stood with my duffel bag in my hand as Donny turned toward me.

Just then, for a moment, I thought that it wasn't him after all, that it was someone older by many years. His face was a man's, with wrinkles and lines and dark blotches below his eyes. He couldn't be the boy I had seen just two years before, grinning as he climbed on an eastbound train. But his head started back in surprise and his mouth opened wide, and it was Donny, all right. He shouted across the crowd of airmen, "Hey! It's the kid from Kakabeka."

"Donny!" I said. I dropped my bag and pushed away from Lofty and the others. The tin hut was full of smoke and noise, of laughter and a dreadful singing. I pushed my way through groups of fliers, desperate to reach the piano, to get to Donny before he blurted out my secret.

He kept shouting in a voice that was too loud, as though he had gone deaf as well as old. "It is!" he cried. "It's the Kid. It's the Kakabeka Kid!"

He had never called me that at home, and I wished he would stop it now. He was too much older and wilder than me, and we'd never really been friends. But now he threw his arms around my shoulders and hugged me like a brother. He turned me round and introduced me to his crew.

In all of England only Donny knew the truth about me, and I was sure he'd tell the others. But all he said was that we'd gone to the same crummy school in the same little town. He said that he had been my hero, which wasn't exactly true. Then he steered me behind the bar and backed me into the corner made by the storage room.

"Hey, Donny," I said. "How many ops have you got?"

He didn't even answer. He pinned my shoulders to the wall and asked me, "What are you doing here?"

"What do you think?" I said.

"You stupid kid." He thrust his face near mine, and his voice was angry. "You're only sixteen."

If he had said it any louder, everyone would have learned the truth right there on my first day. But all the sergeants were busy with their bottles and their glasses, not even looking at me anymore. Lofty and little Ratty, still in the doorway, were gawking round the hut like tourists at a zoo, while Buzz just looked as half-witted as ever.

Donny lowered his voice, but didn't back away. His breath smelled of beer; his eyes seemed strange. "Go home," he said. "Tell them you lied and you want to go home."

"You're nuts," I told him.

"Do it." He pushed me again, so hard that the wall rattled. "Now. Before it's too late."

He grabbed my sleeve and twisted it round my arm. He stared at the blue patch where a fist held a sheaf of lightning bolts, then down at the cloud-shaped badge of a warrant officer. "Man, oh man," he said. "You must have told some beautiful lies."

He was right; I'd told some good ones. I'd invented years of school and made myself an orphan. The only real things in my life anymore were the patch and the badge, and I was proud as a peacock to have them. I yanked the cloth from his fingers.

"Does your old man know you're here?" asked Donny.

"I doubt he knows I've gone," I said. "It's only been eight months." I tried to make a joke of it. "But just wait till he sobers up, eh?"

Donny stared at me so intently that I looked away, down at his tunic and tie. I saw a pair of wings on his chest, and my single one didn't seem so grand anymore. I envied Donny; I had wanted so much to be a pilot.

"I should tell them," he said. "I should go to the CO right now and—"

"No! Donny, don't." I raised my voice too high, and it broke into an embarrassing squeak. Faces turned toward us; conversations stopped. Over by the door, Lofty frowned at Buzz, then started walking toward me. I put my hand on Donny's arm and begged him, "Please don't tell. Nobody knows the truth."

He looked suddenly sad, and I saw how really deep his wrinkles were. He had aged like a dog, seven years for each of the two since I'd seen him. Just then—half angry, half sad—he looked a lot like my old man.

"What's wrong with you?" I asked.

"You'll get the chop," he said.

"I won't."

"You will. It's always the sprogs who buy the farm."

"Well, not me. Not us." I tipped my head toward the door. "Lofty's the best there is. And anyway—"

"All right, Kid." He straightened up; he took his hands away. "Come and see me when you change your mind."

"You won't tell?" I asked.

"No. You're on your own."

"Then swear," I told him. "Swear to God."

He shook his head. "You'll fly an op or two, then beg me to get you out."

"Just do it," I said. "Swear."

And he did. I made him cross his heart and spit on his hand. Then he waved me off, with the same flick of his fingers that would have chased the deerflies back at home. "You'd better totter along and see Uncle Joe.

"Who's that?" I asked.

"The CO. He likes to meet all the sprogs."

Air force words were like music to me, but that one I hated. It made me blush, even though it was true; I was a sprog, a greenhorn.

Donny turned his back and disappeared into the swirl of blue just as Lofty came out of it. He was the tallest bloke I'd ever known, and I really felt like a kid as I looked way up at his face. Because of his height, and because he was almost twenty, I had always thought of him as an adult. But now, compared to Donny and the sergeants in the mess, he looked a bit silly, like an actor in a school play, only trying to look older.

"That chap," he said. "I say, was he binding you, old boy?" Lofty was Canadian too. He had been in England no longer than me, in the air force just a month or two more. But he talked like an old hand, trotting out the airmen's slang whenever he could, and he sometimes mumbled through his nose, trying to sound more British than the Brits. "What was that he called you? Kaka what?"

"Beka," I said with a sigh. "Kakabeka, okay?"

He had never heard of the place. I had told him and everyone else that my hometown was Port Arthur. He laughed and said, "I'll just call you Kid."

From the Hardcover edition.

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