World at War, Then and Now
“War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.“
What’s Going On Artist: Marvin Gaye
By James Channing Shaw
Picture Benjamin, the protagonist in The Caged Bird Sings. In 1940, a musically gifted boy, age 13, full of life but out of place in his family. His is the underdog, overshadowed by Émile, eight years his senior in medical school, and sister Miriam who can do no wrong.
Picture Benjamin’s life turned upside down the day after his bar mitzvah when he hears the first BBC announcement of Germany’s impending invasion of France. Imagine a story of a boy, his personal struggles and the strength he finds to survive the German occupation of France.
Picture Benjamin in the first year of the war as German soldiers patrol the streets and national anti-Jewish decrees strain the lives of the small Jewish population of Rouen, France. He finds solace in his fifth-floor bedroom from his pet cockatiel and hours of violin practice, a room in which he discovers the bells from the carillon pieces that waft into his room. And with that discovery, his future is born: with his seeking out the carillonneur at the cathedral to teach him carillon, his road to becoming a man during a time of war begins.
A timeless tale is amid a horrific and haunting war, full of uncertainty Benjamin shares his personal struggles in a journal, as one way to survive the grueling and unpredictable German occupation of France.
Benjamin enters a welcoming Catholic world at the cathedral, one he cannot share with his family. Words spoken, vestments donned, all foreign to a boy who has had a sheltered existence within his Jewish community. But the music, the carillon, takes him into new realms of learning and insulates him from the harsh realities of the war while the support from his new Catholic ‘family’ builds his confidence.
The carillonneur, Monsieur deTarot, becomes a supportive father figure to Benjamin; Jacques-Milan, the frightening, disfigured caretaker becomes a helpful friend. And there is Marie-Nöelle, the beautiful-but-troubled young novitiate nun who changes Benjamin’s life forever. And human bonds, like these, hold the hand of a troubled teen, and nourish him with love, hope, courage and resilience.
The one thing that does deliver much needed inspiration and strength in bad times, is love. Benjamin’s falling in love with Marie-Nöelle unlocks new life in his wonder years despite a troubled world full of chaos, fear, death, challenges and separation of his family.
Is it fantasy to think that love can blossom during wartime? Loss can be overwhelming, after all. This story sends a buoy of hope to the strength of family ties into a sea of evil during wartime. In doing so, it reaches beyond World War II, beyond the characters in the story, to calamities of all kinds, present and future. But in the end, history repeats itself, good triumphs over darkness and humanity prevails.
Six years later, I dated and loved a war Vietnam veteran who came home with a mixed bag of craziness: Nightmares, drug addiction, isolation, and physical side effects of Agent Orange, a chemical to make fighting the war easier to see the enemy.
So, looking back as a kid, teen, and student, and Catholic woman forever, it was easy for me to channel into Benjamin Cohen, a young man’s psyche in The Caged Bird Sings. I tuned into his open-mindedness, brilliance, fear and anxiety of WWII – and its consequences of lost freedom and loved ones… The echo of war(s) now affects me and likely you, too, with the Ukraine-Russia Crisis and the chance that it goes beyond its borders creates uncertainty. Its victims, not unlike Benjamin, his family and first true love, deal with physical-mental suffering and nightmarish military madness.
All of these horrific events and war crimes, aren’t the first, and they won’t be the last. It’s time to wake up and get it. The only winning move in war is not to play.
JAMES CHANNING SHAW, doctor, writer and musician. With an MD degree from Boston University School of Medicine, he entered academic medicine, where he assumed leadership positions at the University of Chicago and the University of Toronto. He published a memoir of his medical career, Room for Examination. He is the creator-author of The Caged Bird Sings: A Young Man’s Untold War Chronicles. His website is jameschanningshaw.com.
CAL OREY, M.A., is a bestselling author-journalist and gifted storyteller. Her books include the hugely popular Healing Powers book series. She is the co-author of The Caged Bird Sings: A Young Man’s Untold War Chronicles. A native of California, Orey is a versatile novelist. Visit her website at www.calorey.com.