Having read the picture books about the true story behind Winnie-the-Pooh, (one also created by Lindsay Mattick and Josh Greenhut and illustrated by Sophie Blackall) I figured I had a pretty good handle on the story before going into the high second-to-third grade novel, Winnie’s Great War.
I will say I liked. But will add, your experience will vary from mine. Shoot, my experience varied from page to page.
Mattick is a decedent of the Captain Harry Colebourn of the story. One night her son Cole asks her to tell him a story that he has not heard before, one about his bear. A very special, silly ol’ bear. And his mother obliges with the true story of Winnipeg, who would become the famous bear, Winnie-the-Pooh. But this is not the story of Christopher Robin and friends, though Mattick’s narrator does tell the story in that all-knowing narrator voice. This is a story of a bear who they know nothing of her beginnings, just Mattick’s imagination. Therefore, the bear becomes an orphan after living a lovely life with her mother bear in the forest of Canada. She is then captured by the grandson of the trapper that killed her mother, later to be sold to a solider (Colebourn) on his way to Europe and a little thing called World War I.
The story is straightforward and sweet. It is a story of a mischievous, loving bear. A bear who can not only talk to bears, but to squirrels, horses, rats, and goats. She cannot speak to humans. But she learns to communicate with them. She learns to comfort the men when they are sick or scared. She learns to charm grumpy Colonels and, when she goes to live in the London Zoo, charms an entire nation in need of some care. Because Winnie knows her job is not to harm, but to comfort.
It is here where things get funky. Since the bear has an open heart (and therefore can speak to other animals) the metaphor of nations not talking to each other is obvious. The fact Winnie is a healer and not a killer (though she is a bear and not known for cuddles) is an allusion to the fact she will become a teddy bear. The fact that Cole makes some very adult observations is not unheard of, but convenient. This is not for a sensitive child as it does talk about trapping, death, killing and injury in war, the horses stampede and some even drown as a result. And while they mention a bad sore one horse has there is nothing overly gory, but she does not sugar coat things. Such as there is a description of the sore and one part of Winnie’s story has the rat that befriended her tells that horses are horrible and stomped his cousin to death. And the horses are just as flattering to rats (with some cause, dropping and feed do not mix). Since there is the feeling of a classic European story, I think Mattick’s Canadian background comes into play. She is sensitive to the age that would be reading or listening to the story but does not hide real life facts.
Most of what Mattick mentions is based on research, family stories and history. Also, Colebourn’s short diary entries are scattered without. Adults read before you give to your child just to find out their level of understanding and sensitivity to the subject.