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The Machine Gunners

Author: Robert Westall
Series: Puffin Story Book
Edition: 1978 reprint
Published: Harmondsworth
Physical Description: 189p.
Notes: Robert Westall (1929-1993) was an English author, best known for his children’s books which dealt with war. The Machine Gunners (1975) was his first novel and won the Carnegie Medal; the novel was later made into a TV series by the BBC in 1983. Westall’s war novels explore the realities of war from a range of perspectives and place central emphasis on children’s perceptions. This reconfiguration of the adult world is certainly notable in The Machine Gunners, as the child protagonists often feel as betrayed by the adults in their world as they do by the continual upheaval of their world in a town in northern England during World War II. The Machine Gunners also represents an important point in the publications included in the Puffin series. As Katherine Wright argues the book ‘constructs a tougher, grittier reality, through the language used and in the less comforting closure’ (Wright 262). However, it was the book’s use of swear words and slang, rather than its gritty content which had literary merit, that worried the editor of the Puffin Books series at the time (Wright 260-66). The book is set in a town in northern England during World War II, where the reality of the war and its effect on children’s lives is established. The main character, Chas, finds a dead German bomber and steals the machine gun and rounds of live ammunition that are still attached to his body. Chas and a number of other children who are marginalised or outcast in some way form a gang. They build a Fortress to store the gun and plan to shoot down German planes. The Fortress is not only a guard against the enemy, but also against the adult world, in which they have lost faith; the Fortress becomes a ‘nation’ (94) where the children conduct their own democratic affairs. When a German plane is shot down, partly through the children’s efforts, they take the plane’s surviving rear gunner, Rudi Gerlath, as hostage. This situation is later complicated when the children, and two of the children without families in particular, bond with Rudi. The presumed ‘innocence’ of children is also explored, as Rudy sees the children as solemn adults, though different from the indoctrinated children of Hitler’s Youth who were to be feared (123). The novel concludes with a bleak return to reality rather than a happy and resolved conclusion. However, in a similar manner to the conclusion of Gumble’s Yard, also included in the Puffin Story Book series, a pact between the children to remain in contact and a cementing of their friendship is presented.
[Ciara Gallagher].
Wright, Katharine Jane. “The Puffin Phenomenon and its Creator, Kaye Webb.” PhD diss. Newcastle University: 2012. Web. 17 Jul. 2015
Subject: Death, Gender, Genre, Moral, Adult-Child Relationships, World War II, Gangs of Children
Language: English
Original price: n.p.
Library: Church of Ireland College of Education
Collection: Bartlett Puffin Collection - CICE