REVIEW: The Button War, Avi

Monday, 20 August 2018

Twelve-year-old Patryk knows little of the world beyond his tiny Polish village; the Russians have occupied the land for as long as anyone can remember, but otherwise life is unremarkable. Patryk and his friends entertain themselves by coming up with dares — some more harmful than others — until the Germans drop a bomb on the schoolhouse and the Great War comes crashing in. As control of the village falls from one nation to another, Jurek, the ringleader of these friends, devises the best dare yet: whichever boy steals the finest military button will be king. But as sneaking buttons from uniforms hanging to dry progresses to looting the bodies of dead soldiers — and as Jurek’s obsession with being king escalates — Patryk begins to wonder whether their “button war” is still just a game. When devastation reaches their doorstep, the lines between the button war and the real war blur, especially for the increasingly callous Jurek. Master of historical fiction Avi delivers a fierce account of the boys of one war-torn village who are determined to prove themselves with a simple dare that spins disastrously out of control.

The Button War centres around a group of boys in a small, unnamed village in Poland during World War One that is fought over by a revolving-door of equally-horrible German and Russian soldiers. Nearly everyone knows the realities of what followed - the continuously horrific treatment of villages across the breadth of Eastern Europe, by whomever deigned to invade them for the next fifty or so years. Looking from the outside, the reader knows the utterly horrendous future realities of townships just like this one.
The boys a little less so.
Alongside the fact that they are flanderised to an extent that I haven’t seen outside of later episodes of The Simpsons (trust me, it’s that bad), the boys are worryingly apathetic, caring little for the increasingly horrific events going on around them and instead, focussing solely on the acquisition of buttons from soldiers’ uniforms.
The juxtaposition between the innocent childhood game of dares and the fact that the world around them is delving into the horrors of war, therefore only succeeds to a certain extent. Because, instead of it working to emphasise the level of depravity taking place and the ensuing loss of childhood innocence (blah blah blah etc etc etc) (I am attempting, and failing, to write my own book focussing on the same themes and the tiredness of it bores even me), it just made the boys come off as wilfully and purposefully ignorant.
I wanted to shake them.
They were twelve, for God’s sake, old enough to know that risking your life to one-up someone isn’t worth it. And certainly old enough to know that, because of the war going on around them, maybe it was time to put games aside and concentrate on what really matters.
People were dying - their friends, neighbours, family members. People they had known their entire lives. And yet, all they could say was, “oo I bet that I can steal a shinier button than you”.
I mean, really, dude? Twelve, my arse, they sound about seven.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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