April 30, 2009 / 7:25 AM / 10 years ago

Author Jackie French tells of war through a donkey's eyes

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Using animals to make history more digestible to children is one Jackie French’s fortes, but telling the horrors of World War One through the eyes of a donkey is a first for the award-winning Australian author.

“The Donkey Who Carried the Wounded,” published last week as Australia remembered its war dead on ANZAC day, is the latest book in French’s popular children’s historical fiction series which includes “The Camel Who Crossed Australia,” “The Goat Who Sailed the World” and “The Dog Who Loved a Queen.”

The books, French says on her website, are aimed at “giving kids irresistibly exciting and true stories to teach them more about history than they could ever find a text book.”

“When you are writing for kids, it’s good to have a platform of safety for them to go into something that is basically very confronting,” French told Reuters.

“And Gallipoli is extraordinarily confronting for children and was fairly inexplicable. If you put it through the eyes of an animal that’s a way of explaining the past to a modern of reader.

“The Donkey Who Carried the Wounded” tells the oft-recounted story of English-born Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick who was a stretcher bearer with the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) during the Gallipoli Campaign.

After landing at Anzac Cove on 25th April 1915, he was instructed to recover and help the wounded. He used a small donkey, named Duffy, to carry men down from the frontline, often exposing himself and the beast to gunfire.

Simpson, who was killed at Anzac Cove, and his donkey have come to symbolize the courage of Australian forces at Gallipoli and his story has been told to generations of schoolchildren.

In the novel, French uses fact and fiction, as well as several narrators including a Turkish sniper, to tell the story which includes Simpson’s experiences of wandering through the dead and the dying in the battlefield and the donkey’s musings about the futility of war.

The author, who has written several books about wildlife, said she had been studying donkeys for years “for no particular reason” when she started taking a look at Gallipoli “for another reason” when the idea clicked.

“Suddenly the two things came together. I realized that one of the really untold stories of Gallipoli was why the donkey was there and how the donkey managed to do what he did,” she said.

French said it took her over two years to find out what eventually happened to the donkey. “If it had of been killed or left behind I couldn’t have written about it because the children have to know it is going to work out happily in the end,” she added, refusing to give any more details.

The book contains descriptions of injuries which might be unsuitable to young readers, so French recommends the book to children aged 10 and upwards, as well as adults.

“It is very much a children’s book though I think adults will probably enjoy reading it as well,” she said.

“What I like to do with my historical novels is write about the history that we thought we knew, but show that it wasn’t really quite like that.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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