Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence

Lord of the Nutcracker MenReading level: 5.5
Lexile: 640
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Ten-year-old Johnny eagerly plays at war with the army of nutcracker soldiers his toymaker father whittles for him. He demolishes imaginary foes. But in 1914 Germany looms as the real enemy of Europe, and all too soon Johnny’s father is swept up in the war to end all wars. He proudly enlists with his British countrymen to fight at the front in France. The war, though, is nothing like what any soldier or person at home expected.

The letters that arrive from Johnny’s dad reveal the ugly realities of combat — and the soldiers he carves and encloses begin to bear its scars. Still, Johnny adds these soldiers to his armies of Huns, Tommies, and Frenchmen, engaging them in furious fights. But when these games seem to foretell his dad’s real battles, Johnny thinks he possesses godlike powers over his wooden men. He fears he controls his father’s fate, the lives of all the soldiers in no-man’s land, and the outcome of the war itself.

The cover of Lord of the Nutcracker Men gives you a pretty good idea about what the story will be about: a little boy, death, nutcracker men, war, Britain, and letters. There is a lot going on in this book, and it’s one of those that I’ve come to appreciate after I’ve finished it, even though it wasn’t entirely gripping as I was actually reading it. So yes, I was pretty bored sometimes, but that’s partially me not liking war stories.

Lawrence does an excellent job of communicating the horrors of war, specifically WWI. Through Johnny’s dad’s letters, we watch the dad transformation as he fights in the trenches. We also see Johnny growing up. When he first read about the horrors of war in his dad’s letters, he’d be excited and go play “war” with his wooden soldiers. As time passed, he began to understand that real people were suffering and dying. He also grew up as he took his education to heart and began to hate his aunt less and less.

The element of mystery is what kept me going: was Murdoch a ghost or not? Were the games Johnny played impacting of the actual war? There was just enough magical realism for both of these scenarios to be true.

The reading level is low, but there is a lot of sophisticated and out-dated vocabulary, making it not best suited for ELLs. I would recommend the book to kiddos who enjoy war books and/or historical fiction. It really is a powerful book, but it takes some perseverance because it’s not jam-packed with action. It’s more suited to middle schoolers because the main character is pretty young and the reading level is low, but it could easily be enjoyed by high schoolers, too.

Lord of the Nutcracker Men is my tenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

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