Sometimes we use this more focused space to discuss a rising talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. In the April issue of the Bulletin we review James Heneghan's Wish Me Luck, the story of a Liverpudlian boy in the middle of World War II; the topic necessitated a mention of Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners, perhaps the best book ever written for young readers (on either side of the Atlantic) about World War II. And mentioning The Machine Gunners brought to mind Westall's other stellar literary achievements over the years, which necessitated (oh, the burden) going back and reading them.
Westall, who died in 1993, was a relatively prolific author, and not all of his works rise to his highest standard. Many of them, however, do. He worked best in war and wonder: The Machine Gunners, with its hard-edged kid's-eye view of wartime northern England, is probably his best book, but his supernatural fiction, such as The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral, often carries an incomparable chill, treating as it does not only the dangers unseen but the terrible dangers of the faults of humanity. The evil in Stones comes from a local populace who were prepared to turn a blind eye to the terrible price the architect exacted to build the cathedral. In Yaxley's Cat it is not the ghostly cat or the local witch who ultimately threatens but the murderously self-righteous villagers.
In his best works, he was a master of the balance between complexity and simplicity: the stories were simple, but the situations and emotions were not. "The Call" (collected with some terrific companions in The Call and Other Stories) is a ghost story of genuine excellence, its strength coming from its unexpected poignancy as well as its steady progression. Both The Machine Gunners and Time of Fire, a posthumous publication appearing in the U.S. this upcoming August, could be summarized as "about a boy in wartime," but it's their treatment of that familiar topic that renders them memorable.
Most important of all was his craftsmanship in atmosphere. He places details into the story with such finesse they seemed to have grown there: the war becomes a vivid and particular experience, blotting out a contemporary reader's extraneous knowledge of its ending. The easy voices of his characters include a raft of history and a lifetime outside the story as well as in. The result is that even his less successful stories are resolutely inhabited rather than merely made up. And his most successful works offer that great achievement of literature, the experiencing of a different, perhaps impossible life as if you had lived it yourself.
Resounding triumphs aren't usual in this oeuvre; Westall heroes are usually trying to find human solutions to situations that may have started with humanity but have taken on a life of their own. It's a worthy goal. These are worthy books. Don't forget them.
--Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor
This page was last updated on April 1, 1997.