Lieutenant Hotshot is a Young Adult novel from first time author Julia North. When I ventured into the local bookshop and bought a copy, I had heard an excerpt of it in our book group and knew only a little of the story. I can not say that I expected what I read, but it is an amazingly good book. I originally planned to read it then pass it on to my 12 year old son. I will come back to that at the end…
Lieutenant Hotshot is about child soldiers in Uganda, but that doesn’t even start to convey the harsh, gory, grittiness of the novel. It contains violence that at times felt overdone, and language that further draws you to a place that you would probably rather not go. But this is the book’s strength; the picture it paints is hard to read and at the same time utterly compelling.
If I had been reading an adult horror book, then I would expect some of the scenes as an attempt to appal me because of the genre; something to excite the senses. Lieutenant Hotshot contains these same horrific scenes, yet it is a Young Adult novel! The book is not for the faint hearted, but it works perfectly for the simple reason that it is based wholly in fact. Adults and young adults combined will read this book and become consciously aware of what happens all too regularly somewhere on our planet.
People do terrible things to Modetse (the main character), he does terrible things to others, yet ultimately, the book is one filled with hope and love. Positive thoughts are strewn throughout the book and are all the more obvious when set against the horrors. To be dramatic, love and hate are rendered as close together as Yin and Yang; there is very little room for grey to separate the two extremes in this book.
The whole story is written in the first person and this is fundamentally important to it’s success. It is only as you take the journey with Modetse that you fully appreciate how the environment and the actions of others pulled him into a way of life that he didn’t understand. If there had been other perspectives, the spell would have broken and the reality of what was happening would have spoilt the story as soon as it was started.
As I read and experienced some of the harrowing scenes, I could see how something so counter intuitive is able to happen and how the whole awful wheel of manipulation works. There were even very well architected indications that some of the adults who were leading the soldiers had started out as child soldiers themselves and were still under the spell of their conditioning; so well converted that they could know the truth as an adult and still be able to believe themselves to be right. The blinkered way that an individual’s perception can can be warped reminded me of Lord of the Flies, but more extreme, in more depth and based on reality.
There is a quality to the book that I have wanted to capture for some time in my own writing. The articulation of the real world in a magical context. Not really ‘magical realism’, more the realisation that magic exists in our mind, in our intrinsic interpretation of the world (wow, deep man.) Lieutenant Hotshot is essentially a story of war. Not just the physical war that it directly describes, also a theological, nay, magical war for the ‘soul’ of Modetse and others like him. Julia has perfectly balanced the whole storyline of the book to convey both of these battles beautifully.
A final perfectly executed balancing act is that of religion in the book. The book portrays a strong understanding of the power or religion in a very specific way. You can see how Christianity is supremely effective in the battle against real evil in Uganda and I was minded to think how it’s use in that powerful way might have been a reason why the world’s major religions have spread so far and wide from their original countries.
As an agnostic I was concerned that Christianity may sit too heavily on this book. I was wrong. Julia writes in such a way, walking the tightrope perfectly to balance the anger, gore and belief of the first part of the book with love and a different belief at the end. I can imagine that some of the passages would have been extremely powerful if I was Christian, but I can still appreciate the drive and purpose of the mission and it’s positive effect, maybe more now! How else do you fight bad spirits but with good ones??
To start to bring a close to this review and my Yin Yang analogy a, I have created a list of some opposites that I noticed as I read. They are quite a powerful, thought provoking list in themselves. Hopefully they will give you an idea of the places the story goes without giving too much away, even, maybe whetting your appetite?
- Bad spirits from the witch doctor – Good spirits and Jesus
- Drinking blood of enemies – Drinking the blood of Christ
- Cutting as a rite of passage – Baptism
So, there you go. As I said at the start, I found Lieutenant Hotshot to be an amazing and surprising read. Try it for yourself.
My final thought; will I let my 12 year old son read it?
There is definitely an emotional maturity required to read this book (child or adult!) My son has that, and he knows just about every swear word under the sun to boot. The evil that people do and the good that balances it? It is a reality that we all need to understand, accept and try to resolve. So yes, yes I will let him, if he wants to…