My son, age 11, is a big fan of fantasy stories of all kinds. During the past year, he discovered the Alex Rider adventure series, and somehow, the two of us made a deal -- I would read one of the Alex Rider books that he wanted me to read if he would read some historical fiction I want him to read.
Well, it took me about a whole month, but I finally finished Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz, the third book in the series, I guess. I must say, I'm not much of a fan of the "action" genre, but the book wasn't as poorly written as I honestly had expected it to be. I can see why it appeals to young boys. Alex is a 14-year-old schoolboy who is a spy for MI6, complete with cool gadgets, really evil adversaries, pretty girls (but not too much kissing!), exotic locations, and action, action, action. I was a little alarmed at first by the violence (several people die), but I realized it's "cartoon violence" (or "action genre violence," I suppose).
I might have been content to say, ok, I've read your action book, now you owe me Johnny Tremain. But all that changed today when I read Soldier's Heart by Gary Paulsen. It's a very short book (I was able to finish it in one day and still maintain my job duties, lol) that I had checked out of the university library, hoping my son might use it to fulfill the reading requirement for historical fiction for his language arts class. He never acted interested in it, so I was about to return it today, opened it, read the first few pages, and had to finish.
It struck me as I was finishing Soldier's Heart that it is a perfect foil to Skeleton Key. (may be spoilers ahead!) Both of the main characters are young boys -- Alex Rider in Skeleton Key is 14, Charley Goddard in Soldier's Heart is 15. Both end up in very violent situations -- Alex has to save the world from a madman with a nuclear bomb, while Charley is fighting the Civil War. Both of them end up with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder -- although that's not what either book calls it, of course (although Gary Paulsen talks about PTSD as a phenomenon in wars in his forward to the book). What is different is how the reader is led to experience the character's experience of the PTSD.
In Alex Rider's story, the awful things that happen to him are cartoonish, as I said earlier, and he always deals with them skillfully. Early in the story, he's surfing on a rare huge wave off the coast of Cornwall when a member of a Chinese gang chases him down on a jet-ski. Think about it -- this is a 14-year-old boy this is happening to. He does a skateboard-style flip, makes a "perfect landing" behind the jet-ski. But the gangster has a gun, and Alex has to jump on the jet-ski and throttle the guy's throat before the jet-ski goes out of control and they both are under the wave. (Fortunately for Alex, his pretty friend is there to pull him out and give him the "kiss of life.")
In Charley Goddard's story, his first battle makes him wet his pants. It's not pleasant to read, meaning Paulsen has done a good job of portraying the horror of seeing the head of the guy next to you severed by cannon fire, and the confusion of being in a storm of bullets, frozen and unable to remember anything you learned in training, dropping to the ground and using the bodies of your fellow soldiers to shield you from the bullets. And to me, the worst part is that Charley realizes there is no "out" -- when the commanders say to form a line and walk into oncoming fire, you do it, even if it is totally senseless.
Both Alex and Charley are affected by their experiences. At the end of Skeleton Key, Horowitz describes Alex's experience of PTSD: "Everything had worked out all right. He was a hero! So why did he feel like this? And how exactly did he feel? Depressed? Exhausted? He was both of those things, but worse still, he felt empty . . . Life was all around him, but he wasn't a part of it." I can't help thinking as I read that passage that this is the "cool" way for a spy to be -- detached from life, a la James Bond. No one can get to him, because his emotions are so suppressed, and that makes him the perfect tool for a spy agency. I don't especially feel for Alex, because it seems like part of the job.
But it feels more personal with Charley, even though the end result is the same -- isolation. Here's how Paulsen describes it: "He had waited with them, of course, and had settled into camp life and even marching life, but he still believed in the inevitability of battle and most of all believed in the absolute certainty of his own death. He could not live. Many others would die with him and many would live but he knew one thing: He would die. In the next battle or the one after that or the one after that he would die."
There is another scene in which Charley goes "battle crazy" and chases after the retreating Rebels until an officer stops him. And the impression I got (although it's not explicitly in the text) is that the officer is amused and thinks "now there's what we need -- fighters like that!" The irony of it -- to me -- is that an army does need fighters like that, soldiers who have been "ruined" as human beings (sorry if that sounds rough) so they can do the inhumane things soldiers have to do. I don't want to offend anyone with the "ruined" comment, but I do think war changes a person's life drastically. We talk about veterans who die as making a sacrifice, but I think anyone who goes into a battle situation has made a sacrifice. Even if he (or she) is not wounded, the things that he/she sees and has to do cannot leave that person untouched. The life he/she would have had before going to war will never be -- there will only be the life as shaped by the battles.
So --- it's very depressing to me. We give boys heroes like Alex Rider so they think "action" is cool. But the action people are facing in Iraq is not cool. You can't do a backflip and avoid the suicide bomber. As a mother, I pray my son will never have to be in Charley Goddard's shoes -- and I pray for the sons who are there now.