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Shot at Dawn: World War I

by John Wilson

Shot at Dawn, the third novel in Scholastic Canada’s I Am Canada series, is told from the point of view of First World War soldier Allan McBride on the eve of his execution for desertion.

Part of a ranching family in B.C., Allan lies about his age to enlist because he can’t wait to join his friend Ken overseas. After witnessing Ken’s emotional breakdown and spending time at the front, Allan becomes disillusioned about the glories of war. The sudden death of another friend pushes him over the edge, and he joins a pack of deserters hiding in the woods.

Prolific author (and Q&Q reviewer) John Wilson employs a terse narrative style that is well suited to a character with no time to spare. Wilson describes the sights, sounds, and smells of the trenches, where even the mud takes on “an evil, living presence, determined to draw us down into the depths.” The novel is very intense, and the explicit violence may be too much for some readers, but beyond the sheer horror of war, this is a fascinating portrait of a young man pushed to the edge and struggling to come to terms with a world he could never have imagined.

For a book filled with hopelessness and despair, the ending is a bit too happy. And while there is no room in this novel for any debate about the morality of war – in the face of such repeated brutality, how could there be? – the powerful writing and strong characters will grip readers from beginning to end, and hopefully provoke some thoughtful discussion about this pivotal moment in history.