Lord of the Nutcracker Men

Lord of the Nutcracker Men

4.9 10
by Iain Lawrence

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Ten-year-old Johnny eagerly plays at war with the army of nutcracker soldiers his toymaker father whittles for him. He demolishes imaginary foes. But in 1914 Germany looms as the real enemy of Europe, and all too soon Johnny’s father is swept up in the war to end all wars. He proudly enlists with his British countrymen to fight at the front in France. The war,… See more details below


Ten-year-old Johnny eagerly plays at war with the army of nutcracker soldiers his toymaker father whittles for him. He demolishes imaginary foes. But in 1914 Germany looms as the real enemy of Europe, and all too soon Johnny’s father is swept up in the war to end all wars. He proudly enlists with his British countrymen to fight at the front in France. The war, though, is nothing like what any soldier or person at home expected.

The letters that arrive from Johnny’s dad reveal the ugly realities of combat — and the soldiers he carves and encloses begin to bear its scars. Still, Johnny adds these soldiers to his armies of Huns, Tommies, and Frenchmen, engaging them in furious fights. But when these games seem to foretell his dad’s real battles, Johnny thinks he possesses godlike powers over his wooden men. He fears he controls his father’s fate, the lives of all the soldiers in no-man’s land, and the outcome of the war itself.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A boy watches his kindly toymaker father turn against the German shopkeepers and neighbors in the family's London community, then travel to France to fight in the Great War in what PW called, in a starred review, "a thoughtful and thought-provoking novel." Ages 10-up. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
In 1914, the rumblings of the Great War intrude into his world, and an army of nutcracker men, carved by his father, march fearlessly across ten-year-old Johnny's kitchen floor. Parades of soldiers, once neighbors now heroes every bit as grand as his own toy troops, leave for France. While his carved regiment invades the parlor, his father enlists in the army, promising to be home for Christmas. Then, with a puff of steam and a shrill blast from the train whistle, Johnny is sent to stay with his aunt in the village of Cliffe to protect him from the danger in London. With his boots squishing in the mud, Johnny digs miniature trenches through Auntie Ivy's garden to conceal his soldiers during battles waged after school. Each chapter begins with a letter from Johnny's father holding a little man to add to his army. In France, his father carves a general, a drill sergeant, and the tiniest soldier of all, himself as a small boy with a toy gun. Delighted by the characters he meets, his father dispatches a cook and an exhausted soldier, curled up for a nap, in his next letters. Not impressed by their charm Johnny scoffs at them asking how they can be of any use in his skirmishes. Tormented by the boys at school, Johnny becomes friends with Sarah, the daughter of a lieutenant, even though she is a girl. "It wasn't so bad, I thought, to have a girl for a friend. After all, she was almost like a boy. Except for her clothes and her hair, and her voice and her shape, she was exactly the same as a boy," remembers Johnny. Together, they command his armies in spectacular conflicts losing brave fighting men when they sink into the mud of the flowerbeds. When the reports of the war in France seem tofollow the path of his garden battles, Johnny holds his breath for letters from his father and blames himself for the tragedies he believes he has caused. Now, along with the soldiers, the letters are filled with his father's disillusionment. Gnarled figures arrive in the post that terrify Johnny. One figure is so gruesome that his aunt tosses it into the fire. Each person Johnny encounters in Cliffe changes his perception of the war. A teacher who talks about the importance of honesty, his friend Sarah whose father is killed, a young soldier who shot himself so that he could come home. This account of war portrays not only the men who fought on the front lines, but those who anxiously waited for loved ones to return and peace to quiet their lives. The letters and soldiers kept coming. Many Christmases passed before Johnny saw his father again. Lord of the Nutcracker Men, by Iain Lawrence, is a glimpse of World War I told through letters scribbled in the trenches by a soldier and the memories of his son who waits for him to come home. During the Great War, Lawrence's grandfather served as a Lewis gunner on the Western Front. In his notes, the author recognizes that for the British soldiers, this was a war fought at home. "An officer going on leave could have breakfast in the trenches and supper in a London hotel. The soldier at the front could read a newspaper just one day old. During the biggest barrages, the sound of guns was heard in England. I imagine that my grandfather could hear them for the rest of his life," writes Lawrence. 2001, Delacorte Press, 224 pages,
— Lisa Regehr
The time is 1914 and the place is England. War has broken out and German citizens living in London are fleeing. It seems that nothing will ever be the same. Ten-year-old Johnny is growing up in England, fascinated by war and the wooden soldiers his father carved for him. What he does not understand is why his father is suddenly turning against his German neighbors. And he is upset to learn that his father will be joining thousands of others to do his part for England. As the war creeps closer, Johnny's mother fears for her son and sends him to Cliffe, to live with Aunt Ivy, whom he barely knows. There, he is forced to play outside in the garden with his soldiers and to begin a new school. Everything seems different and the only solace he has are the letters he receives from his father. With every letter, his father sends at least one new wooden soldier to add to Johnny's collection. Each soldier becomes more and more detailed and the letters, once full of excitement, begin to reveal the drudgery and the difficulty of being on the front lines. As Johnny and his father's lives continue miles apart, they become eerily similar. Johnny wonders if his war play is foretelling real battles his father is going through. This is a superb story told with vivid language and real characters and emotions. The reader will better understand the mixed emotions involved in war and how ordinary people felt during such an uncertain time. KLIATT Codes: J*; Exceptional book, recommended for junior high school students. 2001, Random House, Dell Laurel-Leaf, 212p. map.,
— Shaunna Silva
Children's Literature
When World War I begins, Johnny's father leaves England to fight on the Western Front, while Johnny is evacuated to the country. There he marches the wonderful Nutcracker soldiers his father has carved for him against a make-believe enemy. But as the war continues, his father's letters reveal that war is more than a game to play. The letters contain additional carved soldiers, resembling those his father encounters, which Johnny joins in battles. But Johnny begins to worry that these battles are having a mysterious relationship with what is actually happening in France. The events both in France and England are sobering, making for a gritty realism in an engrossing story with fully fleshed characters, as Johnny gains maturity and World War I comes alive. 2001, Delacorte Press/ Random House Children's Books, $15.95. Ages 10 to 16. Reviewer: Sylvia Marantz
In 1914 London, ten-year-old Johnny lives a carefree life with his mother and toy-maker father. His prize possession is his army of nutcracker men, a one-of-a-kind collection carved by his father. While Johnny plays at war, his father enlists for what he believes will be a short-lived real war and is sent to the front in France. Because of the worsening situation in London, Johnny is sent to live in the countryside with his Aunt Ivy while his mother works in a munitions factory. Letters from his father relate the horrible conditions and realities of the front. With each letter, his father sends him more carved soldiers—some French, some English, some German. As Johnny adds them to his growing army and plays out exciting battles, he sees that his battles parallel what actually is occurring. He comes to believe that what happens in his games seems to predict what will occur at the front and to his father. He worries that he inadvertently might cause harm to his father and other soldiers and that he controls the outcome of the battles and the war. Secondary characters are portrayed wonderfully in this novel. Johnny's teacher instructs him in more than just schoolwork. He imparts a sense of responsibility for one's actions. Johnny's aunt is strict but tries to do her best. Johnny's growing concern for his father and his own imagined power is conveyed subtly. This story could be a useful springboard for discussion about World War I, the home front, and real and imagined fears. VOYA CODES:3Q 4P M J (Readable without serious defects;Broad general YA appeal;Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8;Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2001, Delacorte, 194p, $15.95. Ages 11 to 15.Reviewer:Jane Van Wiemokly—VOYA, December 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 5)
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-In 1914, 10-year-old Johnny enjoys playing with the nutcracker soldiers his toymaker father has made for him. World War I seems distant until people he knows are sent away, and then his father joins the British army. When the bombing starts in London, the boy is sent to live with his aunt in the country. He dislikes the small town, misses his parents and friends, and is uncomfortable living with a relative whom he does not know well. He escapes his troubles by playing in the garden with the toy soldiers, adding the new one his father sends with each letter. Initially Johnny's father is upbeat and glorifies army life, but after he is sent to the front, he writes of the endless rain and mud, the rats, the shooting, and the tense waiting. Each soldier he creates becomes more and more full of the pain of war until one arrives that is so ghastly that Johnny's aunt throws it in the fire. As the boy becomes lost in his play world, he becomes convinced that the battles he puts his "men" through affect the real battles on the front. Using vivid language, Lawrence writes poignantly of war and the devastation that England and its people suffered. Because of the first-person voice, readers travel the heights and depths with Johnny's emotions and feel present in the story. Readers who enjoyed Michelle Magorian's Good Night, Mr. Tom (HarperCollins, 1982), set during World War II, will find a kindred story here.-Cheri Estes, Detroit Country Day Middle School, Beverly Hills, MI Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Child Magazine
A Child Magazine Best Book of 2001 Pick

Strange things begin to happen when World War I breaks out and Johnny is sent from London to the safety of the countryside. Is it the 10-year-old's imagination, or are the battles he stages with his toy soldiers foretelling events his father later describes in letters home from the front? This suspenseful story is best suited for children at the upper end of the age range.

Kirkus Reviews
In 1914, Johnny Briggs's father marches off to WWI with the promise that he will be home by Christmas. When his mother joins the war effort as a factory worker, Johnny is sent to live with his maiden aunt: a good woman, but practical and humorless. Johnny's father, a toymaker, sends him frequent letters from the trenches, each accompanied by a hand-carved soldier to populate his toy army. But the letters and the wooden figures gradually alter . . . from humorous, to sad, to grotesque. Johnny fears that the small figures mirror his father's own nightmarish transformation in the trenches and that his own innocent game of toy soldiers can have actual effects on events in France. Subplots involving Johnny's vandalism of the rose garden of a respected teacher, and a deserter who is too ashamed to face his own father add further emotional weight and complexity to Johnny's situation as the horrors of an adult world at war penetrate his childhood innocence. The well-realized English village setting during the fall and winter of 1912 is bleak, and the backyard in which Johnny ranges his toy soldiers is as muddy as the frontline. Johnny's studies of the Iliad may be beyond some young readers. However, they will understand the stated parallels of a world in which war is a game for the gods (much as his game with his soldiers) and a world in which wars may pause but never stop (as in the well-documented 1914 Christmas truce). Thoroughness of research is indicated in a detailed author's note. A minor false note is that Johnny, a bright 11-year-old, needs to have his father's letters read to him, but that can be forgiven in an otherwise original piece of historical fiction in which big themes arehauntingly conveyed through gripping personal story and eerie symbolism. (Historical fiction. 10-14)
From the Publisher
“Big themes are hauntingly conveyed through gripping personal story and eerie symbolism.”–Kirkus Reviews, Starred

“Beautifully integrated supporting characters reinforce Lawrence’s theme of the horror of war.”–The Horn Book Magazine

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
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2 MB
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

My dad was a toy maker, the finest in London. He made miniature castles and marionettes, trams and trains and carriages. He carved a hobbyhorse that Princess Mary rode through the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. But the most wonderful thing that Dad ever made was an army of nutcracker men.

He gave them to me on my ninth birthday, thirty soldiers carved from wood, dressed in helmets and tall black boots. They carried rifles tipped with silver bayonets. They had enormous mouths full of grinning teeth that sparkled in the sun.

They were so beautiful that every boy who saw them asked for a set for himself. But Dad never made others. "They're one of a kind," he said. "Those are very special soldiers, those."

I had no other army to fight them against, so I marched my nutcracker men across the kitchen floor, flattening buildings that I made out of cards. I pretended that no other army even dared to fight against those fierce-looking soldiers.

When I was ten, the war started in Europe, the war they said would end all wars. The Kaiser's army stormed into Luxembourg, and all of Europe fled before it.

But for me, the war really began on the day the butcher vanished, when I found his door mysteriously locked. Inside, the huge carcasses hung on their hooks, and the rows of pink meat lay on the counters. Yet there was no sign of Fatty Dienst, who had greeted me there just the day before--as he always had--with a great smile and a laugh, with a nub of spicy sausage hidden in his apron pocket. He'd pulled it out in his hand that had no thumb, and said--as always--"Ach, look what I've found, Johnny." His accent turned my name into Chonny. "That's goot Cherman sausage there, Chonny," he'd told me.

That night I asked my dad, "What happened to Fatty Dienst?"

"That butcher?" said Dad. "I suppose he's gone home to be with all the other butchers. To join that army of butchers."

I didn't understand; they had always been friends. Many times I had seen Dad laughing at Fatty's jokes, or the German winking as he slipped an extra slice of ham in with the rest.

"I never trusted that man," said Dad.

Then the others vanished: Mr. Hoffman the barber, Henrik the shoemaker, Willy Kempf the doorman. They slipped away one by one, and soon only Siegfried was left from all the Germans I'd ever known, poor little Siegfried who worked as a waiter. I went to school with one of his sons.

But it wasn't much longer until I saw him leaving too, with his wife and their children, each with a suitcase made out of cardboard. A crowd of boys and barking men drove them along like so many sheep. Some of my pals ran in circles around the poor man, who walked so slowly and sadly that I felt like crying.

Dad was watching beside me, in the window of our flat. He looked furious. "Do you know what that fellow was doing?"

"Serving people?" I asked.

"Telling them he was Swiss," said Dad, his hands clenched. "But I demanded to see his passport, and showed up the rotter for what he was."

Off they went, with their little cardboard suitcases, down toward the railway station on Victoria Street. Dad flung open the window and shouted after them, "Go along home!" It made no sense; their home was in London, just around the corner. Only the week before, I had seen Dad get up from our supper at Paddington Station and press a tanner into little Siegfried's hand. But now he seemed full of hate, and I thought I would never understand how a man could be his friend one day, and his enemy the next.

Then the Kaiser's army stormed into Belgium. I saw them at the picture show, hundreds of soldiers looking just like my nutcracker men, all in black boots and silver-tipped helmets. They flickered across the screen, their arms held stiff at their sides but their legs swinging high. They marched on and on as though nothing would stop them. And I started asking my dad, "Can you make me some Frenchmen? Can you make me some Tommies?"

There was nothing Dad wouldn't do for me. He whittled away in his shop, and came home with a tiny Frenchman, his blue coat buttoned back into flaps, his legs marching. I named him Pierre. The next day it was a Tommy that Dad brought home, with the tiniest Union Jack I'd ever seen painted on his sleeve. I put him into the battle on the fifth day of August, 1914, the night that Britain went to war.

All of London seemed to celebrate. Men joined up by the hundreds, by the thousands, marching away in tremendous, cheering parades. They passed my father's toy shop, stepping along, singing along, as the women shouted and the children dashed in amongst them. Through a blizzard of rose petals, they passed in such numbers, with such a stamping of feet, that the smaller toys shook on my father's shelves. But Dad didn't go with them.

"Aren't you signing up?" I asked him. "Aren't you going to the war?"

"Johnny," he said, "I'm afraid the King doesn't need me just now."

We were watching them pass, the new soldiers. They were clean and smart, like freshly made toys.

"Don't you want to go?" I asked.

"But what about you? What about your mother?" He shook his head. "No, Johnny, I think I'm better off here. Some of us have duties at home."

"Like what?" I asked. The soldiers were still passing by.

"Well," he said, "I have to build up your little army, don't I? Someone has to stop your nutcracker men."

Already, they had captured nearly all of the kitchen. They were spilling through the parlor door, where my lone Pierre was putting up a brave fight. Then my mum stood by mistake on my army, and one of the nutcracker men got his hand broken off.

"Look what you did!" I cried.

"Oh, Johnny, I'm sorry," she said. "But do they have to be underfoot like this? Can't you play somewhere else?"

So I rushed them forward, into the parlor. And leading the charge was the man with no hand. I pretended it was Fatty Dienst. "Go forward!" he shouted as the Frenchman retreated again. "Go forward for Chermany!"

Down the street, in the little butcher shop, the meat turned gray and then brown. A horrid smell came out through the door. Someone smashed the windows; then a bobby came round and boarded them up. And the Germans kept marching, west across Flanders, rolling armies ahead of them with no more bother than my nutcracker men.

Ambulances carrying soldiers from the front went rattling past my dad's shop. People turned out to cheer them as loudly as they'd cheered the soldiers going the other way. Big advertisements appeared everywhere, enormous posters that said, "Your Country Needs You." And more parades of new soldiers marched down the streets, though Dad stayed home. He built up my little French army one man at a time.

"Is Dad a coward?" I asked my mum.

"Of course he's not," she said.

"Then why doesn't he go to the war?"

"Well, he doesn't like to say this, but he's just not tall enough, Johnny."

"Not tall enough?" He seemed like a giant to me.

"He's five foot seven," she said. "An inch too short for the King."

It made me sad that he was too short, and sad that the King didn't want him. But Dad was even sadder; he never laughed, or even smiled, as summer turned into autumn, as the war went on in France. He started flying into rages at the least little thing, and he scattered my army of nutcracker men when they came too close to his favorite chair. In Europe, the French and the British turned the Germans back at the Marne, but even that didn't cheer up Dad.

In late September he brought home a cuckoo clock that was all in pieces. "Someone smashed it," he said. "I had it in my window, and a fellow got into a fit because he thought it was German!" The little cuckoo bird dangled from a broken spring, and it chirped as Dad shook the clock. "Anyone can see that it's Swiss."

On the first of October he brought home a box of toy soldiers. They were British Tommies, little soldiers and machine gunners, cast from lead by a German toy maker.

Dad dropped the box on the floor. "You might as well have these, Johnny," he said. "No one's going to buy them now, and that's damned certain."

He never swore. So my mother gave him a dark look, and he turned very red.

"Well, they're not," he said. "If it comes from Germany, nobody wants it. No one will touch it, except to smash it. I saw a man go out of his way--clear across Baker Street--to kick at a dachshund a lady was walking."

"But we are at war," said Mum, trying to console him. "Those little lead soldiers might only be toys to you, but to other men they're something worth fighting about."

Dad scowled but didn't argue back. He sat in his chair, staring through the window at the buildings and the sky. It was just a few days later when he went off to his shop in the morning, and came home in a uniform. He had joined the British Army.

"They lowered the height!" he cried. "It's five foot five. I'll be a giant among the next batch of men."

His uniform didn't fit him very well. It drooped around him like a lot of greenish brown sacks, and the funny puttees--wound too many times round his legs--were held in place with his bicycle clips.

I laughed when I saw him like that. But Mum cried. She went at him with a mouthful of pins, tucking him all into shape like one of his little felt dolls. And all the time, as she nipped and tucked, she cried great tears that poured from her without any sound.

Dad softened his voice. "I have to do my bit. We have to lick the Germans."

He packed his things in a little bag. He sat on the floor and packed a book to read, and his carving set, his paints and inks. Mum smiled when she saw him doing that. She looked terribly sad, but she smiled. Then she bent down and kissed the top of his head.

Dad looked surprised. He gathered the rest of his things in a hurry, then stood up with his little bag. "I won't be gone for long," he said. "I'll be home in time for Christmas."

That was ten weeks away; it seemed forever.

"No tears, now," said Dad. "The time will pass before you know it." He hugged me. "I'll see you at Christmas."

He said the same thing at the railway station, and he shouted it from a window as the train started down the track. "Bye-bye, Johnny," he said. "See you at Christmas." A thousand men leaned from the windows, every one dressed in khaki, all waving their arms. They looked like a forest sliding down the platform, drawing away in blasts of steam. They left us all behind, a crowd of children and women and old, gray men. The platform was littered with rose petals.

We waved; we cheered and shouted until the train clattered across a point and the last carriage slipped around the bend. Then there was a silence that made the air seem thick and heavy. Nobody wanted to leave, but no one would look at anybody else. My mother covered her mouth with her handkerchief, took my hand, and pulled me away.

From the Hardcover edition.

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