Captain Rosalie was originally written in French and formed part of an anthology titled, ‘The Great War: Stories Inspired by Objects,’ in which a collective of authors were asked to write short stories about specific items to mark the centennial of the Great War. Timothée de Fombelle was asked to write a story about the Victoria Cross. In Captain Rosalie, Timothée de Fombelle’s thoughtful words are supported by Isabelle Arsenault’s delicate, yet deep, illustrations. Captain Rosalie is a heart-breaking story about Rosalie, a five-and-a-half year old girl with the most fiery of red hair. She has enlisted herself as a combatant of World War I and must act with military precision if she is to earn her medal. Through Rosalies’s eyes we see the effects that war can have on a child and it’s heart-breaking consequences.
The year is 1917 and war is rife across Europe. Rosalie’s father is fighting, her mother works in the munitions factory and our young protagonist, Captain Rosalie, has infiltrated a squad and is gathering intelligence. She has no memories of her father prior to the war, she was too young to remember. Her memories consist of the letters that he sends home, her mother shares these letters not of war but of mills and fishing and walnuts, but Rosalie doesn’t want to hear about that.
With her parents doing their bit for the war effort Rosalie finds herself too old to go to the nanny’s and spends her days in the care of the master at the school for older children. Sitting on the bench at the back of the class and camouflaged amongst the grey coats, Rosalie almost goes unnoticed whilst she works on her ‘drawings’. This is OK though, Rosalie likes being hidden. It is easier to go about her mission that way - she can plan, she can observe, she can remember. When her mother receives a blue letter everything changes and Captain Rosalie knows that the time for her mission is now. Only upon successful completion of the mission will Rosalie understand, but this very understanding will uncover some horrible truths.
This book has pertinent life lessons for both children and adults. Foremost, it is a wonderful tribute to the determination and desire of one young child and it shows children that sometimes it is important to do things not only to help ourselves but also to help others. It sensitively explores how parents try to shield their children from horrors and trauma and how children are more acutely aware of this than adults perhaps believe. Whilst it is only natural for parents to want to protect their children, the book is a lesson in why children need to know the truth even if it is painful. Through the actions of the mother the reader is taught to understand why parents are sometimes not completely honest with the truth. But as the narrative progresses we are reminded that when trauma is part of ones life, it is not possible to shield those you love from it. In young Rosalie, we have a character who is resourceful, courageous and wants to know the truth. Even though she is young she has great strength and she shows the reader that she, like them, has the emotional intelligence to be able to cope with traumatic news and can deal with “the pungent air of truth.”
The evocative and emotional drawings by Arsenault are largely in grey scale which creates a really sombre mood. However, the inclusion of splashes of colour, namely Rosalie’s red hair, give the impression of hope. It is definitely worth taking a moment to really explore the images, I often found a tear forming in the corner of my eye. De Fombelle’s writing keeps Rosalie’s mission a secret until the latter part of the book but offers clues in the build up so that the reader can begin to make their own conclusions.
I have not seen or read anything like this before about World War I. It is part picture book and part narrative. It is heavy on text for a picture book and demands the reader to regularly make inferences and come up with their own interpretations. This book demands the attention of every child studying war and is particularly suited to children in grades 5 and 6.
Recommended for 10+.