I met Jennifer Beck while tutoring illustration classes some time back, and had long admired her writing for children. When I noticed her latest book in my local bookshop I picked it up, admiring the pencil and watercolour sketch by Robyn Belton on the cover. The Anzac Violin tells the real story of New Zealander Alexander Aitken and the part a violin plays during his time as a soldier in the first world war.
I bought the book, and popped it in my bookcase, wondering if my granddaughters would like it. Phemie and Beatrix live in Melbourne but remain very much connected to New Zealand and I was anticipating their forthcoming visit very much.
Along with the bush walks, swimming, visiting the library and travelling the ferries at any opportunity, every evening they gathered up books to read at bedtime. Never just one. Beatrix, the youngest, was tucked up on the divan in my study when I picked up The Anzac Violin. She was fascinated with the story of Alexander from the beginning, where images pertaining to his background peppered the pages.
Beatrix traced her finger across the pages. Touched the image of the violin on each. Talked about the soldiers. There was no need to explain the connection to Anzac, as she had learned about the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at school. She loved knowing that Alexander Aitken’s friends had helped transport the violin throughout Europe and hiding it, in case of confiscation. For everyone loved hearing Alexander play, especially Humoresque which became a favourite. It helped make a very difficult existence bearable and brought comfort to his comrades.
It so happens, that on top of my bookcase is a photograph of my grandfather (below on right) and his younger brother Harry, taken in 1916, just before they headed off to join the same war.
On the first page of Jennifer’s book, is a photo of Alexander Aitken taken the same year. I talked about the photo and the uniform, then brought over my grandfather’s photo for my granddaughter to see. I told her that Francis Robert O’Brien was her great-great- grandfather, her father’s great-grandfather, and my grandfather. She certainly understood the grandparent connection and that he and his brother had died in the war. What I didn’t tell young Beatrix, in any detail, were the repercussions of the death of Francis Robert O’Brien on his wife and four-year-old daughter. The diminished family stumbled through the many lonely years that followed, never truly able to adjust to the impact of that loss.
Both of us agreed it was lucky that Alexander Aitken made it back to New Zealand, and that he was later reunited with his violin, which his war buddies in London had repaired and sent back to him. The Anzac Violin is a remarkable and poignant story about a bright young man that was able to follow an exceptional career as a mathematician in Scotland, marry and raise two children. He later donated his violin to his old school, Otago Boys’ High School, where it is still on display.
I was very pleased to have read The Anzac Violin, which is a well-written, warm-hearted story about a deserving young man. Knowing the tragedy that was The Great War, it was pleasing to learn of a positive outcome for another young soldier who had joined up in 1916, and to be able to share his story with my five-year-old granddaughter. My regret is that my grandfather was never able to share his stories with me.
The Anzac Violin was published in 2018 by Scholastic New Zealand Limited