This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.1.
John Wilson is not only a careful historian, but a powerful weaver of tales. Wings of War joins And in the Morning (2003), Red Goodwin (2006), and Shot at Dawn (2011) to tell the story of World War One through the eyes of those the war touches, both in the trenches and on the home front. Wings of War, though, takes to the skies, exploring the life of young Edward Simpson, who learns to fly in his uncle’s wheat fields and ends up flying over Beaumont-Hamel during the most devastating battle in the war.
World War One saw a new form of warfare: no longer did men face one another only on the battlefield with guns and bayonets, but with tanks, flamethrowers, poison gas—and above, with airplanes. Eddie Simpson is already infected with the flying bug before the war begins; he knows that from the relative safety of his airplane cockpit, high above the barrage, he can contribute to the war effort. Like so many young men, he goes to war inspired by idealism, a sense of the rightness of his involvement. He recognizes early his advantages over the soldiers caught in the trenches, suffering in ways that have little to do with the enemy bullets that bombard them. It isn’t long, though, before Eddie is faced with death—both of his friends and of German soldiers shot down by his squadron. Learning the ways men handle the killing and the fear of being killed, he grows up quickly; the new recruits, older than he, seem young, innocent. At the age of seventeen, Eddie is a seasoned veteran of the air; as he says, he has already “acquired the tired look around the eyes that marks those of us who have been here longest” (146).
Eddie’s emotional and psychological development moves us; we watch as his idealism slips away and a hardened maturity grows in its place. What makes Wings of War especially engaging, though, is Wilson’s artful weaving of Eddie’s story with the technical details of early flight: airplane construction and handling, and the specialized techniques required for successful aeronautic battle. Airplanes and flying are Eddie’s life, but he struggles to reconcile the sense of freedom flying gives him with the destruction it enables. It is only fitting that his story centres around that which moves him most deeply: flying, planes, and his role as a pilot and a soldier.