After such a vigorous start to the new year, with sledding and skiing, our household feels as though someone hit the ‘pause’ button. Our older son is really, really unwell and has been confined to the sofa or his bed for more than a week. He’s either watching a movie, reading a book or sleeping, or some combination of the three. His schedule is odd, giving him periods of time in the night when he can’t sleep, and I’m the lucky soul who gets to sit up with him when he thinks to wake me.

About five days ago I realized that he might like it if I read to him. I do read to him when we read our family book of the moment, or when he and his dad and I read our shared book, but I haven’t read to just him alone for a long time, except for excerpts from an article or book that beg to be shared. It didn’t take me too long to choose a book and it got the nod quite quickly: Vera Brittain’s A Testament of Youth.

This boy is steeped in the world wars through heavy reading on the subject; he has fairly nearly made his way through the entire (adult) WWI and WWII collection at our local library (in addition to the dent he had already made at the Ottawa Public Library before we moved in 2010), and also owns a small collection of books on the subject. Aviation is what got him onto the subject, but has long since ceased to be the sole focus of his reading in the area. Ever hungry for more on the topic, I’ve seen him wade through some heavy tomes on the politics of the wars and watched him enthusiastically consume really interesting peripheral titles, such as a book on how important works of art were rescued during the second world war in Italy and another that delved into the role of Swiss financing. Through his reading he has travelled from the trenches of France and Belgium to the naval theatre in the Pacific and to countless points in between. He has read more of human suffering than I would have thought possible at such a tender age (13).

I picked up Brittain’s book, which I first read in my 20s when I lived in the UK, thinking that the perspective of an early feminist might be the only one he had not yet been exposed to. I think I was correct in this assumption, although I must give him credit for a wider almost subconcious knowledge-base that comes from sheer exposure to so many different perspectives, including the works of fiction that he has read over the years.

As it is concerned with her very provincial upbringing in England at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, the first part of her book worried me. I thought my son would find it boring and rapidly lose interest in the book before it’s real story had even begun. In my efforts to try to make this part of the book as accessible as possible, I found myself explaining some of Brittain’s wordier passages (she did tend to overwrite at times and ocassionally composed sentences that it’s quite possible to get lost in). Although he is finding talking difficult, my son quickly expressed his exasperation with my methods and asked me to just get on with it. And so I did.

Our latest session was in the wee hours of this morning, when we read for about an hour and finally got into the guts of the story (ie war has begun). I read until he was asleep again, which is what he wanted, and so we’ll have to reread a few pages the next time to make up for bits that he may have missed. I’ve found it difficult to be on the outside sometimes as I’ve watched him soak up so much information and interpretation of the wars without me – he has been reading widely and without parental intervention since he was tiny – and am finding it very special to have a book on the topic that we can share. So, for now, for short spells of time, we are in England in 1914 and about to crossover to the continent and a world of worries that are both strange and familiar.

Incidentally, this review of Brittain’s book is a particularly good one in my view.

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