The English GI is a rewarding and uplifting World War 2 memoir based on the true story of a Yorkshire schoolboy’s wartime adventures and coming of age in The United States. The narrative is based on the recollections of the author’s grandfather and provides many poignant themes relevant to us in our contemporary context. It is an engaging and thought provoking read which I enjoyed immensely.
I was drawn into the story immediately due to the unusual circumstances that the central protagonist, Bernard Sandler, finds himself in. A Leeds schoolboy and son of Latvian Jewish immigrants, he is persuaded to go on a school trip to Canada and The US and unfortunately finds himself marooned there as war breaks out in Europe and Britain declares war on Germany. Fortunately he is able to be taken in and live with a Jewish family in New York, who are friends of Bernard’s parents. In the following years the narrative recounts Bernard’s early schooling, work experiences, falling in love, preparation for and participation in the war in Europe as The US enters the conflict following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour. The narrative concludes with information about Bernard’s life post war in the UK.
Despite the story being centred on a conflict some eighty plus years ago, there are many emotions and themes displayed that we can identify with and draw a modern parallel to in our lives. Central to me was the invoking of fear in all it’s forms throughout the read. At the beginning of the story we learn that Bernard’s original name of Carl was dropped by his father upon arrival in Leeds from Latvia in the early years of the century, fearing that it sounded too Jewish and would prove a hindrance to integration in their new surroundings. Later in the story the fear linked to ethnicity is raised again as Bernard, during active combat in Europe, ruminates on the ‘H’ engraved on his soldier’s dog tag and the repercussions of instant death it would lead to in the event of capture signifying his Hebrew origin as it does. Realising the predicament he is in, not having the engraving on his tag would lead to suspicion from his comrades as to his potentially being an enemy spy/agent.
Fear and apprehension is also present during Bernard’s initial time in New York as he finds the intensity and pace of life bewildering, being duped by a local unscrupulous taxi driver and experiencing an austere rejection at his singular attempt to celebrate Jewish New Year at his local synagogue. Fear is also omnipresent during the description of his time in combat as Bernard sees close friends and comrades fall. After the war concludes and Bernard is waiting to be discharged from the army, he is sent to a military camp in North Carolina and is dismayed to see signs of racial segregation and fear, had he not just returned from fighting a war against the forces of racial hatred alongside his fellow black countrymen?
It is heartening to see how Bernard deals with and faces up to this fear as the narrative unfolds. In New York his confidence grows as he is exposed to an education system that encourages him to develop and question things and likewise in a religious aspect as his lodging family in New York, the Effrons, don’t participate in organised religion, unlike his family in the UK. There is also a contrast in the depiction of how his left / right hand writing style is dealt with in New York as opposed to his early experience in Leeds, which was strict and somewhat Victorian in its nature. A cultural development occurs in New York as Bernard and Taube, his future wife, discover Jazz music and attend performances by Louis Armstrong. Bernard’s confidence and understanding of the immigrant’s position grows as he sees the blending and fusion of Western and African cultures leading to the creation of art, in contrast to the dislocation and lack of fusion taking place in Europe at the same time.
The factual information given detailing Bernard’s later life in Leeds as a patron for the arts in the final part of the book, is illuminating. It helps the reader to understand how his earlier life experiences played a major role in determining his actions and behaviours in later life. Little did I realise as a teenager growing up in the 1980’s, I watched and was intrigued by ‘The secret diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 and three quarters’, independently produced for TV by Bernard!
The graphic genre story is one that had previously passed me by though I was pleasantly surprised how the illustrations gave weight, meaning and depth to the story. At the outset the wide open, natural carefree landscape of Canada gives way and contrasts sharply with the dense, claustrophobic nature of the New York skyline and hustle of the city buildings. However by the time the war fleet sets sail from New York the sheer volume of vessels seem to eclipse the city and render the cityscape almost small in comparison. Also the darkness depicted on board the boats crossing the Atlantic implies the forthcoming difficult times ahead once Europe is reached. The character’s faces also convey feelings such as the haunted look to camera on page 23 as Bernard’s UK family ponder if they will ever see him again. Proud, unflinching seriousness is evident on Bernard’s face as he swears allegiance to the US flag on enrolment into the army and also on the face of his commanding officer in France.
To conclude as a child and teenager I would watch avidly the seemingly endless supply of war films on TV and cannot recall any of them portraying, discussing or acknowledging the themes of political, social and ethnic conflict as shown in this book. It serves as a timely reminder given the Ukraine & Russia conflict and the recent war in the Middle East with the Islamic State that the difficulties faced by individuals, communities and their struggle for existence have not receded with the diminishing of time. As Bernard’s supreme army commander George Patton states, ‘The real hero is the man who fights even though he is scared’. So thank you Bernard for having the courage to fight and overcome obstacles in all their forms throughout your life and thank you Jonathan for bringing his story to a contemporary audience.
Jonathan Sandler lives in North West London. When he is not writing he works as a Software Project Manager. Jonathan has always had an interest in graphic novels and World War Two. Producing The English GI was a perfect way of combining these interests!
You can buy a copy of this book here.
The English GI was reviewed for Books Up North by John Hill
John is an English Literature graduate and experienced EFL tutor who currently offers pastoral support to Sixth Form students at a college in the North West. In his free-time he enjoys travel, walking, nature, art, literature and Rugby League in no particular order!
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