Sunday, February 21, 2016

Milk Bar Warriors

Milk Bar Warriors
Brent Leslie

Set in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Brent Leslie’s Milk Bar Warriors tells of Auckland schoolboy, Bruce, who does a good deed for an American serviceman barely older than himself, one of the thousands of soldiers here training in New Zealand under a shroud of media black-out. As a result of his quick thinking and even quicker biking, Bruce becomes friends with a group of American GIs: Rick, Walter, and Edwin. Nicknamed Flash by his new friends, Bruce chauffeurs the GIs about Auckland in their petrol guzzling Studebaker. It’s a great adventure for the young New Zealander, taking his mind off his dad who’s away at the war, and from his schoolboy responsibilities at the ARP (Air Raid Precaution Unit). Besides, the American glamour boys aren’t affected by the rationing imposed on Kiwi civilians, and Bruce’s new friends always seem to have plenty of money in their pockets and a pretty girl on their arm. But racial tensions are high and as his friends’ prepare to depart for battlefronts in the Pacific, Bruce sees first-hand the ugly consequences of intolerance and fear…

A thoughtful and well researched account of life in New Zealand in World War II, I wish we’d had a copy of Milk Bar Warriors last year when my son was studying for his NCEA History exam. It’s perfect background reading for that annual question on the impact of a key historical event on ordinary New Zealanders ‒ the information is all here, tucked tidily into the narrative. I discuss the story with my son, now seventeen:
“Did you know there was a media black-out? That the media was wasn’t allowed to reveal that the Americans were here?” I say. “No photographs, no news announcements.”
“Really? No wonder there were hardly any primary sources for me to find.”
I remember the struggle he’d had tracking down relevant material. “Pity this book wasn’t out earlier, huh?”
“Yeah,” he said wistfully. “That would have been good.”

In fact, there are two primary historical sources in the book, poignant letters sent home from the front by Leslie’s uncle Norman Bramwell Wilcox. Indeed, Leslie permeates his story with the flavour of the era: showing Bruce listening to the music of the day on the wireless, waiting in the car while his older mates go into pubs, attending dances meant to welcome the Americans, and digging trenches behind the dunes after school in preparation for a potential beach invasion. Young readers will be transported back into that exciting, yet dreadful time. Even the language is plucked from the period, and while the dialogue might seem slightly stilted in a text intended for a modern YA readership, strike me down if the expressions used aren’t perfectly suited to the day.
Accessible and engaging, Milk Bar Warriors should be required reading in every New Zealand high school.
Other compelling historical fiction for YA readers by Brent Leslie include Jock Logan and the Sea Devil, a jaunty sea adventure in which twelve-year-old Jock crosses paths with World War I’s notorious Count Felix von Luckner, and Hills of Gold, a story of teens trying to keep their family together during unrest at Waihi’s famous Martha Hill gold mine.

By Lee Murray
ISBN 978-0-473-34861-8
Releasing March 2016, RRP $28
Available from Wheelers and all good bookshops.
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