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A Medal for Leroy

A Medal for Leroy

by Michael Morpurgo

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When Michael's aunt passes away, she leaves behind a letter that will change everything.

It starts with Michael's grandfather Leroy, a black officer in World War I who charged into a battle zone not once but three times to save wounded men. His fellow soldiers insisted he deserved special commendations for his bravery but because of the racial barriers, he


When Michael's aunt passes away, she leaves behind a letter that will change everything.

It starts with Michael's grandfather Leroy, a black officer in World War I who charged into a battle zone not once but three times to save wounded men. His fellow soldiers insisted he deserved special commendations for his bravery but because of the racial barriers, he would go unacknowledged. Now it's up to Michael to change that.

Inspired by the true story of Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British army, award-winning author Michael Morpurgo delivers a richly layered and memorable story of identity, history, and family.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Inspired by Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British army, War Horse author Morpurgo examines WWI from another angle with this novel narrated in the present day by a man named Michael as he looks back at his boyhood. As a nine-year-old in 1940s London, Michael dreads visiting his paternal aunts Mary and Martha, nicknamed Pish and Snowdrop: the trips only remind Michael and his Maman of his late father, Roy, an RAF pilot. Five years later, after Martha’s funeral, Mary sends Michael a framed photo of his father; when the glass breaks, Michael discovers a hidden letter from Martha. What follows is her account of her time as a nurse during WWI in Belgium and a secret love affair, opening Michael’s eyes to his family’s untold history and unrecognized bravery. Martha’s letter to Michael, which makes up the second half of the book, addresses important topics directly, including racial prejudice and unwed motherhood. The novel’s elegant structure and quiet, retrospective narration—both Michael’s and Martha’s—bolster this story about the importance of knowing the truth about one’s heritage. Ages 10–14. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“The novel's elegant structure and quiet, retrospective narration--both Michael's and Martha's--bolster this story about the importance of knowing the truth about one's heritage.” —Publishers Weekly
Children's Literature - Greg M. Romaneck
Michael is a young, biracial child whose father died during World War II while serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Michael knows little about his father but tries to learn as much as he can from the two aunts who adopted and raised him. With regularity Michael and his mother visit the aunts who share with him as many details as they can about his late father’s childhood and youth. When one of the aunts dies she leaves Michael a gift in the form of a framed picture of his father. Michael accidently breaks the glass covering the photo and discovers a hidden letter to him from his late aunt. When he reads this letter Michael learns the secrets that have been part of the thread making up the fabric of his family’s life. With this discovery Michael knows not only who his father was but also who his “aunts” really are or were. But knowing secrets can be a trap and Michael must decide whom he can and should share these new truths with. The decision Michael makes affects not only him but also other family members in both the present and the future. This is the series of events that make up the plotline in A Medal for Leroy but these facts alone are merely the skeletal structure of a novel that addresses issues of the heart and spirit. In the form of Michael and his family, issues of love, secrecy, devotion, and intolerance all combine to draw the reader into a world that spans two world wars and remains relevant to the modern day. Morpurgo is a talented writer and once again uses his gifts to produce a story of war and peace and their effects upon the very spirit of mankind. Reviewer: Greg M. Romaneck; Ages 12 up.

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A Medal for Leroy

By Michael Morpurgo

Feiwel and Friends

Copyright © 2012 Michael Morpurgo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5696-7


March 2, 2012

When it came to it, I wasn't entirely sure what we were doing walking up that hillside in Belgium. Christine's hand came into mine as we walked. Were we burying the past, righting a wrong, or simply paying our respects? Were we doing it for ourselves, or was it for Maman and Papa, or Auntie Snowdrop and Auntie Pish, or Grandfather Leroy? It had happened somewhere in this field, definitely this field — we knew that much from the maps. We knew Leroy had run on ahead of the others, that he was leading the attack. But where exactly had it happened? Closer to the crest of the hill, near the trees? Probably. Nearer the farm buildings? Maybe. We had so little to go on.

Jasper had run on ahead of us, and was snuffling about under a fallen tree at the edge of the wood. Then he was exploring along the tree line on the crest of the hill, nose to the ground.

"Wherever Jasper stops," I said, "if he ever does, wherever he next sits down for a rest, that's where we'll do it. Agreed?"



I grew up in the 1940S in London, just after the war. When I was a boy, my friends called me "Poodle." I didn't mind that much. I'd have preferred they called me Michael — it was my real name, after all — but they rarely did.

I didn't have a father, not one that I ever knew, anyway. You don't miss what you've never had, so I didn't mind that either, not much. There were compensations too. Not having a father made me different. Most of my pals at school lived in two-parent families — a few had three or even four parents, if you count step-families. I had just the one parent, Maman, and no brother and sisters either. That made me special. I liked being different. I liked feeling special.

Maman was French, and spoke English as if it was French, with lots of hand waving, conducting her words with her hands, her voice as full of expression as her eyes. We spoke mostly French at home — she insisted on it, so that I could grow up "dreaming in both languages" as she put it, which I could and still do; but that was why her English accent never improved. At the school gates when she came to fetch me, I'd feel proud of her Frenchness. With her short dark hair and olive brown skin and her accent, she neither looked nor sounded like the other mothers. We had a book at school on great heroes and heroines, and Maman looked just like Joan of Arc in that book, only a bit older.

But being half French had its difficulties. I was "Poodle" on account of my frizzy black hair, and because I was a bit French. Poodles are known in England as a very French kind of dog, so Maman told me. Even she would call me "my little poodle" sometimes, which I have to say I preferred to "mon petit choux" — my little cabbage, her favorite name for me. At school I had all sorts of other playground nicknames besides "Poodle." "Froggie" was one, because in those days French people were often called "frogs." I didn't much like that. Maman told me not to worry. "It's because they think we all eat nothing but frogs' legs. Just call them 'Roast Beef' back," Maman told me. "That's what we French call the English."

So I tried it. They just thought it was funny and laughed. So from then on it became a sort of a joke around the school — we'd even have pickup soccer teams in the playground called the Roastbeefs and the Froggies. In the end I was English enough to be acceptable to them, and to feel like one of them. Maybe that was why I never much minded what they called me — it was all done in fun. Most of the time, anyway.

Somehow it had gotten around the school, and all down the street, about my father — I don't know how, because I never said anything. Everyone seemed to know why Maman was always alone — and not just at the school gates, but at Nativity plays at Christmastime, at soccer matches. It was common knowledge in school and down our street, that my father had been killed in the war. Whenever the war was spoken of around me — and it was spoken of often when I was growing up — voices would drop to a respectful, almost reverential whisper, and people would look at me sideways, admiringly, sympathetically, enviously even. I didn't know much more about my father than they did. But I liked the admiration and the sympathy, and the envy, too.

* * *

All Maman had told me was that my father was called Roy, that he had been in the RAF, a Spitfire pilot, a flight lieutenant, and that he had been shot down over the English Channel in the summer of 1940. They had only been married for six months — six months, two weeks, and one day — she was always very precise about it when I asked about Papa. He'd been adopted as a baby by his twin aunties, after their sister, his mother, had been killed in a zeppelin raid on London. So he'd grown up with his aunties by the sea in Folkestone in Kent, and gone to school there. He was twenty-one when he died, she said.

That's just about all I knew, all she would tell me, anyway. No matter how much I asked, and I did, and more often as I grew up, she would say little more about him. I know now how painful it must have been for her to talk of him, but at the time I remember feeling very upset, angry almost toward her. He was my father, after all, wasn't he? It felt to me as if she was keeping him all for herself. Occasionally after a soccer match, or when I'd run down to the corner shop on an errand for old Ma Merritt who lived next door to us, Maman might say something like: "Your papa would have been so proud of you. I so wish he'd known you." But never anything more, nothing about him, nothing that helped me to imagine what sort of a man he might have been.

Sometimes, on the anniversary of his death or on Remembrance Day perhaps, she'd become tearful, and bring out her photograph album to show me. She couldn't speak as she turned the pages, and I knew better then than to ask any more of my questions. It was as I gazed at him in those photos, and as he looked back up at me, that I really missed knowing him. In truth, it was only ever a momentary pang, but each time I looked into his face, it set me wondering. I tried to feel sad about him but I found it hard. He was, in the end, and I knew it, just a face in a photo to me. I felt bad about it, bad about not feeling sad, I mean. If I cried with Maman — and I did sometimes over that album — I cried only because I could tell Maman was aching with grief inside.

Some nights when I was little, I'd hear Maman crying herself to sleep in her room. I used to go to her bed then and crawl in with her. She'd hold me tight and say nothing. Sometimes at moments like that I felt she really wanted to tell me more about him, and I longed to ask, but I knew that to ask would be to intrude on her grief and maybe make it worse for her. Time and again I'd let the moment pass. I'd try asking her another time, but whenever I did, she'd look away, clam up, or simply change the subject — she was very good at changing the subject. I didn't understand then that her loss was still too sharp, her memories too fresh, or that maybe she was just trying to keep her pain to herself, to protect me, perhaps, so as not to upset me. I only knew that I wanted to know more about him, and she wouldn't tell me.


Papa's Medal

As time passed, she did begin to speak of him a little more often and more freely too, but even then only in answer to my endless pestering. I remember we were moving house — just down the road, not far, from 83 to 24 Philbeach Gardens, near Earls Court in London — when the bottom fell out of the cardboard box I was carrying upstairs in our new house, spilling everything down the staircase. It was as I began to pick things up that I came across the medal, silver with a blue-and-white ribbon attached. I guessed it must have been Papa's, and asked Maman what he had won it for.

"For bravery," she told me. "Your papa was very brave, you know. They were all brave, all those fighter pilots." Then she said, "It was his, so now it's yours. You can keep it if you like."

So that was why, from then on, I always kept Papa's silver medal on my mantelpiece alongside all my soccer trophies and awards. I'd look at it often, touch it for luck sometimes when I was going off to play a soccer match, or before a spelling test at school. Occasionally, in the secrecy of my bedroom, I'd pin it on, look at myself in the mirror, and wonder if I could ever have been as brave as he was. I discovered later, after more pestering, that it wasn't the only medal for bravery Papa had won.

Maman revealed to me one morning as we were driving down to Folkestone for our New Year's visit to the Aunties — Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop, as we called them — that Auntie Snowdrop had Papa's other medals.

"She'll show you, I expect," she said, "if you ask. She's very proud of them"

I knew they had a photo of Papa in his RAF uniform. It was in a silver frame on the mantelpiece in their sitting room, always polished up and gleaming. He looked serious, frowning slightly, as if some shadow was hanging over him. There were scarlet poppies lying scattered around the photograph. It was like a shrine, I thought. Auntie Pish was the loud one, talkative and bossy, forever telling me I should be tidier, and blaming Maman for it. She would chuck me under the chin and arrange my collar and tie — we always dressed up in our best for these visits — and she'd tell me, her voice catching, how alike we were, my papa and I.

I'd often stand in front of that photo and try to see myself in my papa's face. He had a mustache and high cheekbones, deep-set eyes, and in the photo his skin looked darker than mine too. Maman had told me that his hair was frizzy like mine. But most of his hair was hidden under his cap. In his RAF uniform with his cap perched on his head, he was simply a hero to me, a Spitfire pilot, like a god almost, not like me at all.

I dreaded these visits, and I could tell, even though she didn't ever say it, that Maman did too. For me, though, there was always Jasper to look forward to. He was their little white Jack Russell terrier with black eyes, bouncy and yappy and funny. I loved him, and he loved me. Every time we left I wanted to take him with us. On the journey home I'd go on and on about having a Jasper of our own, but Maman wouldn't hear of it. "Dogs!" she'd say. "They make a mess, they smell, they have fleas, which is why they scratch. And they lick themselves all over in public. Répugnant! Aborrant! Dégoûtant! (She knew a lot of French words for "disgusting"!) And they bite. Why would I want a dog? Why would anyone want a dog?"

I remember this visit better than any of the others, maybe because of the medals, or maybe because it was the last. As we drove toward Folkestone, Maman's nerves, as usual, were getting the better of her. I could tell because she was grinding the gears and cursing the car, in French, a sure sign with her. She was becoming more preoccupied with every mile. She was smoking one cigarette after another — she always smoked frantically when she was anxious. She started telling me what I must and must not say, how I must behave. She was never like this at home, only on our way to Folkestone to see the Aunties.

Once we arrived outside their bungalow she spent long minutes putting on her makeup and powdering her nose. When she finished, she clicked her powder compact shut and turned to me with a sigh, a smile of resignation on her face. "Well, how do I look?" she asked, cheerier now. "Armor on, brave face on. 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more'— that's from Shakespeare, Henry V — your papa said that when we visited them together that first time, and every time afterward too. It's what I have to remember, Michael. The Aunties may not be easy, but they adored your papa. He was the center of their lives, just as he was for me too. We are all the family they have now, now that he's gone. We mustn't forget that. I don't think they ever got over your papa's death, you know. So they and I, we have that in common too. We miss him every day of our lives."

Maman had never spoken about Papa to me like this before, never once talked about her feelings until that moment. I think she might have said more, but then we saw Auntie Snowdrop come scurrying down the path and out of the front gate, waving to us, Jasper running on ahead of her, yapping at the gulls in the garden, scattering them to the wind. "Oh God, that dog," Maman whispered under her breath. "And those horrible elves are still there in the front garden."

"Pixies, Maman," I said. "They're pixies, and I like them, specially the one that's fishing. And I like Jasper too." I was opening the car door by now. "It's the rock cakes I don't like. The currants are as hard as nails."

"Won't you have another rock cake, Michael dear?" Maman said, imitating Auntie Pish's high-pitched tremulous voice and very proper English accent. "There's plenty left, you know. And mind your crumbs. Pish, you're getting them all over the carpet."

We got out of the car, still laughing, as Jasper came scuttling along the pavement toward us, Auntie Snowdrop close behind him, her eyes full of welcoming tears. For her sake I made myself look as happy as I could to see her again too — and with Auntie Snowdrop, to be honest, that was not at all difficult. A bit "doolally" she may have been — "away with the fairies," that was how Auntie Pish often described her — but she was always loving toward Maman and me, thoughtful, and kind. To meet Auntie Pish, though, I always had to steel myself, and I could see Maman did too. She was standing there now at the front door, waiting for us as we came up the path. I bowed my head to avoid the bristly kiss.

"Pish, we thought you'd be here an hour ago," she said. "What kept you?" We were usually met with a reprimand of one kind or another. "Well, you're here now, I suppose," she went on. "Better late than never. You'd better come along in. Just in time for elevenses. The rock cakes are waiting." She tightened my tie and arranged my collar. "That's better, Michael dear. Still not the tidiest of boys, are we? I made the rock cakes specially, you know. Plenty to go 'round." Then she shouted to Auntie Snowdrop, "Martha, do make sure you shut that gate properly, won't you? Pish, she's always leaving it open. She's so forgetful these days. Come along!"

Maman didn't dare look at me and I didn't dare look at her.


Rock Cakes and Snowdrops

Whenever I came to visit, Jasper always treated me like his best friend. He sat by my feet under the kitchen table, and surreptitiously ate all the rock cakes I gave him. He chewed away secretly, though sometimes a little too noisily, on the currants, licked his lips, then waited for more, his eyes wide with hope and expectation.

The chatter 'round the table echoed the last visit, and the one before, and the one before, as it always did. Auntie Pish did most of the talking, of course, and loudly because she was a bit deaf, peppering Maman and me with questions about my progress at school. She wanted only the good news — we knew that — so that's what we told her: winning a prize for effort, singing a solo in the Christmas church service again, being top scorer on the soccer team.

She interrupted this interrogation from time to time with critical observations about my upbringing. "He's still not very big, is he?" she said to Maman. "Pish. I still don't think you feed him enough, you know. That's what we think, isn't it, Martha?"

It always came as something of a surprise to me when she called Auntie Snowdrop by her proper name. I had to think twice. Their names were too alike, anyway, Martha and Mary. Perhaps that was why Maman and I had given them nicknames in the first place. "We shall need more milk from the larder, Martha," she went on, and then much louder, "I said, we want more milk, Martha." Auntie Pish's solution to her own deafness was to presume everyone else was deaf too.

Auntie Snowdrop was looking down at me adoringly, clearly not paying any attention to her elder sister at all. In all the years we'd visited, Auntie Snowdrop had said very little to me or to anyone — she let her sister do all the talking for both of them. But she'd always sit beside me, often with her arm around me, and laying her hand gently on my hair from time to time. I think she just loved to touch it.

"Martha! The milk!"

Auntie Snowdrop got up and scuttled away apologetically. Auntie Pish reached out and chucked me under the chin, shaking her head sadly. "So like your father, you are," she said. "Bigger ears, though. His ears didn't stick out so much." But her mind was soon on other things. "And don't go helping yourself to my prune juice again," she called out after Auntie Snowdrop. Then confidentially to us, "She does, you know. Pish, Martha's an awful thief when it comes to my prune juice. I have to keep my eye on these things. I have to keep my eye on everything."


Excerpted from A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo. Copyright © 2012 Michael Morpurgo. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Morpurgo, a Member of the Order of the British Empire, is the author of over 100 children's books, including An Elephant in the Garden and Shadow. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller War Horse, which debuted on Broadway in 2011, and is now a film by Steven Spielberg.

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