No Man’s Land by Simon Tolkien
Simon Tolkien is a British author, and the grandson of JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and many other novels. Simon Tolkien, inspired by stories of his grandfather’s experiences in the First World War, has written No Man’s Land, a novel and wonderful family saga that takes place in the decade or so prior to WW1 and for some years afterwards.
The central character, Adam Raine, lived in London for the first few years of his life, impoverished but not too unhappy until the death of his mother changes everything. Adam’s father, Daniel, then decides to leave the city and return to his roots in the coal-mining town of Scarsdale where he can find work, and he and his son can live with relatives.
Simon Tolkien paints a vivid picture of life in London and in the mines of northern England. The work is hard and life is often desperate. As Daniel does his best to make things better, Adam struggles to be accepted by the boys he goes to school with. Adam is a bright boy and instead of going into the mines he continues with his schooling and is expected to go on the higher education – creating even more of a rift with his schoolmates who will not have the same opportunity.
By 1912 the miners are planning to strike and Daniel struggles as liaison between the miners and the mine owners. There is unrest in Europe. The Irish are planning rebellion. There is a great divide between rich and poor. It is very much a time of great change.
Of course, we know that most, or all, of these schoolboys will be off to fight in France when they are still so young - friends and brothers - and many will be slaughtered in muddy battle fields in France. This is where the book is at it’s most outstanding, as we read about Adam and his friends attempting to survive the war – and of their loyalty and dignity when life is at it’s most desperate.
We know this novel is based upon JRR Tolkien’s life so we assume that Adam will survive the war- and he does. But, like all of these men he has been fundamentally changed by his experiences, and England has changed as well. The use of coal is diminishing, the mines are struggling to keep men employed, and mine owners are finding it difficult continue the grand lifestyle that was once so effortless.
No Man’s Land is also a love story. Adam met a young woman before the war; they fell in love and pledged their allegiance, at the displeasure of her family. But, of course, there are complications. Many other characters fill out the story and vividly bring the time and place to life.
After the war, as the returning soldiers take their place in civilian life, Adam Raine is challenged by events that have a great effect on his own future – and he begins to write.
I did a little research after reading No Man’s Land and discovered that while much is true to the life of JRR Tolkien, much is fiction. Tolkien did, however, begin to write after the First World War – and his first book to be published was The Book of Lost Tales, inspired by the death of his friends at the Somme. I think he’d be very proud of his grandson and his terrific novel No Man’s Land.