Melvyn Bragg

"A Son of War"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 22, 2004)

"It was a fundamental matter…a matter that [Ellen] had to cope with every day, wondering whether [Sam was] alive, and keeping the boy reassured when she had nothing at all in the way of evidence. It's a funny way for a young woman to manage, year in, year out. We know the horrors of war, we know something about the men--but the women and children waiting and listening out… helpless… with no power to act, none at all, that's another story."

A Son of War by Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg's first novel about Sam Richardson, The Soldier's Return, establishes the powerful influence of place--specifically, the small village of Wigton in Cumbria--on Sam, his wife Ellen, and his son Joe. Sam has had to leave this village to fight abroad during World War II, the first traveling he's ever done, and when he returns home to Wigton, he recognizes his limited future there and sees how inflexible Wigton is, socially. His son Joe does not know him, and he must establish a relationship with him which does not threaten the child's relationship with his mother. While Sam has been away, his wife has enjoyed working two modest jobs, which she does not want to give up but which changes the relationship they had before the war. The traditions, friendships, and familiarity of the community have sustained her during Sam's absence, but these now seem to close in on him.

A Son of War continues the story, though it is a completely self-contained novel which does not require prior knowledge of The Soldier's Return. Sam has decided to stay in Wigton, rather than go to Australia to start a new life, and he must now learn to adapt to peace as effectively as he once adapted to war. Believing that his son has become something of a mama's boy, he encourages him to don boxing gloves and learn to box to protect himself. Ellen, on the other hand, encourages Joe to sing in the choir, take piano lessons, and even begin tap-dancing lessons. Sam himself works in the local factory, a job he hates because he has experienced the joy of intellectual discussions, for the first time, with his men during the war. He feels stifled. "What was there for him in Wigton but to do this and this and no more? To know his place, his limits, his limitations, his predestined mediocrity, his inevitable failure to be at the full stretch of himself."

Everyday life and the relationships of Sam and Ellen as they deal with their postwar world become the focus here as they try to rediscover each other and the love that brought them together in the first place. Small events, not major plot lines, become the focus of the novel as Sam seeks intellectual companionship with Leonard, Ellen's uncle, and continues to work in the factory. Ellen continues to enjoy her jobs and loves living in the village while hating the family's small apartment with one outdoor privy for the whole building. Young Joe, now seven, tries to fit in with his schoolmates and with Speed, a ten-year-old gang member whom he idolizes.

When Ellen's previously unknown half-brother, Colin, appears in town, Ellen has the opportunity to find out for the first time about her own father, who abandoned her mother before Ellen was born. A man whom Sam believes is "no good," Colin lives with Ellen's Aunty Grace and Uncle Leonard, and is unable to work, manipulating Ellen by revealing only tiny bits of information at a time to keep her dependent upon him. Exerting undue influence on young Joe, too, Colin is an unexpected complication in the lives of the family.

From the end of the war through 1954, the daily lives of the Richardson family unfold with all their small victories and defeats. Sam is a microcosm of Everyman—a man without an education who is dependent upon "the system" for his family's welfare, a man who must put up with slights and insults by his factory bosses if he wants to keep his job, a man for whom there is little or no opportunity for independent thought and action. Sam's big decision to buy a decrepit pub and restore it offers an opportunity to live his own life, and he is determined to make the Blackamoor a respectable pub where fights are not tolerated, where he is not ashamed to have Ellen work, and where the family can live upstairs. They all recognize that there are no days off, not even Christmas.

This is a novel about real, ordinary people dealing with the social, political, and economic issues which arise in the English countryside ten years after World War II. It is a novel of small triumphs and failures, not big dramas, as Sam and Ellen face the future. Young Joe must learn what it is to be a man, how to face fear, and how to discover who he is in the macho world of his father and the sensitive world of his mother. Through him the reader sees that his battle for independence and security parallels battles of the entire generation.

Dividing the novel into separate sections, Bragg shows us various periods of the Richardsons' lives from their different points of view. Ellen's joy at finally having a house of her own in Greenacres is tempered by her dislike of the distance from town, and Sam's joy at having his own pub is tempered by his recognition of how hard Ellen will have to work there. Joe's life is filled with fears as he is pulled in many different directions by the adults in his life. These points of view are revealed in simple dialogues and in interior monologues, all completely natural and expressed in the plain, unadorned language of real characters. Sentences are fairly short, and the vocabulary is as simple as his syntax. Bragg's interest is not in creating a "literary" novel as much as it is in recreating real (ordinary) lives. In this he is completely successful, creating a broad picture of the postwar era through the details of one family's struggle.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to

*The Cumbrian triology
** Richardson Family in Post-War Cumbria triology



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About the Author:

Melvyn BraggLord Melvyn Bragg was born in 1939 in Wigton, Cumbria, in the north of England. He was educated at Wadham College, Oxford, where he studied Modern History and began his broadcasting career as a producer for the BBC in 1961. Since 1967 he has pursued a distinguished career as both a writer and broadcaster. He is best known as the presenter of arts programs on television, especially The South Bank Show, in which he has made a sustained effort to present literature to a wide public in a popular and informal manner. He also originated and edited Read All About It, and has contributed many features to the BBC's Lively Arts series. He also hosts Start the Week on BBC radio.

A prolific novelist, he is also the author of a number of television scripts and film screenplays, including Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 (with Norman Jewison), Isadora, and Clouds of Glory with Ken Russell. His novel The Hired Man was adapted as a musical in 1984 and won of the Time/Life Silver Pen Award. The Soldier's Return won the W H Smith Literary Award; Son of War and Crossing the Lines were both longlisted for the Booker Prize.

He is chancellor of The University of Leeds as well as President of the National Campaign for the Arts; of which he was made a Life Peer in 1998.

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