MILLARD, Glenda (text) Phil Lesnie (illus.) Once a Shepherd Walker, 2014 unpaged A$27.95 NZ$29.99 ISBN 9781921720628 SCIS 1676268
Once Tom Shepherd’s flocks, green fields and world were all at peace but then his darling Cherry sewed a greatcoat. He ‘wept ten thousand footsteps’ and ‘marched right into hell’. He knelt to help an enemy. Once the war was over, the man Tom had assisted came to return Tom’s great coat. Cherry ripped the seams apart and made a new lamb as a toy for Tom Shepherd’s fatherless son.
Poetic narratives and old songs are evoked by the words and rhythms in Millard’s writing. ‘Once’ recurs; it reinforces the lost lives and loves of war. Unfamiliar combinations of words draw attention. While the narrative revolves on the motif of a shepherd, it also implies the events have been long completed, and always far from Australia.
The watercolour illustrations convey unstated elements of the tale equally well. Tom stands with blood spattered soldiers surrounded by mud and barbed wire. They wear round British helmets. The pointed German helmet of the enemy Tom tried to help lies on the ground beyond them both. The man who returns the great coat to Cherry needs a crutch.
This is a tragic story for very young children to read or hear but it is so beautifully told, in a finely designed and finished publication. It tells all readers that even when irrevocable loss occurs, ways to heal can follow. It begins and ends with a world at peace.
reviewed by Elspeth Cameron