It tells the story of two French girls who find a blind English soldier in the woods above their farm. He is trying to go home again, to see his dying brother, and because, as is gradually revealed, the war (WWI) has become something he can no longer be a part of, and he has deserted. He draws the girls to him with his small silver donkey (a good luck charm given as a parting gift by his brother), and with the stories he tells, and they visit him daily, keeping him alive while his sight returns. The stories are not of his own experience fighting in the war, but are about donkeys--the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem, the donkey who asked the sky for rain in an Indian legend, a donkey who carried wounded soldiers down to the beach at Gallipoli, and the finding of the silver donkey itself. The girls, knowing they have no way to see the soldier safely across the English Channel, bring their older brother to meet him. He in turn brings a still older friend, who, although a victim of polio, can still sail a boat and become a hero of this small story.
I use the word small on purpose--it is not an epic tale of the horrors of violent war. The book focuses on a small place, a small event in the larger picture, on small, ordinary people. There is no padding in this story; every word and scene seems cleanly and purposefully chosen, which gives the story great intensity and immediacy. The stories told by the solider deliberately break this feeling. I'm not a great fan of interjected stories in general, because I resent having the narrative flow broken, and also because I feel challenged by them. The author must have put them in for Deep Reasons, I think, and will I be clever enough to figure out what they were?
But I liked these stories very much as separate entities--they would make lovely stand-alone read alouds, except for the fact that they made me cry. I am not sure I've figured out the Point of the stories, if indeed a single Point exists. It's tied in to the nature of donkeys, the silver donkey of the title, and the Soldier (donkey-like in what he bore during his time at the front, but ultimately not so when he deserts). At any event, it's great food for thought, but makes the book perhaps less likely to hold the interest of children who have other things to do with their lives than pull up crabgrass. I think this book also might work better for readers who already know about the horrors of WWI. From the beginning I knew what the soldier was escaping from, whereas the book only tells about it toward the end.
My only regret about this book is not a fault, exactly, but a personal preference. I really liked the younger sister, Coco--she reminded me very much of Hilary McKay's style of character. Here's an example:
"Coco, however, was enjoying being mortally sad. She wandered down the lane sobbing woefully. She didn't dab away the tears that cascaded down her cheeks. "Lieutenant, Lieutenant!" she wailed. "Why - why - why?"
She supposed that anyone who saw her, a lonesome child staggering, weeping along a lane, could not help but be touched by the poignancy."
I would have liked more Coco.
The Silver Donkey sounds like an animal story, and there's nothing on the cover boards (there was no dust jacket) to suggest what it's about. The picture on the back of a sort of fay looking guy holding a small donkey made it look like a fantasy. It's lack of dust jacket drew me toward it--it is a beautiful dark green, with silver embossing, making it look old and precious. It is a lovely book to hold and read- the words are clear and far apart on the page, with pencil illustrations by Don Powers.
The book, published in Australia, won that county's top prizes: the 2005 Courier Mail award for young readers and the 2005 CBC Book of the Year award for young readers. Despite this, I find it a little bizarre that it has been made into an apparently successful musical.
Here's a link to a nice interview with Sonya Harnett over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.