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You may be the most imaginative person in the world and yet it would be difficult for you to place yourself in Joe Bonham's shoes. What is life like when you have no limbs, can't see, hear or communicate in any way - half your face blown away and you are not even sure if you are, at any particular moment, dreaming or not. Dubbed the Most Original Book of 1939, Johnny Got His Gun follows the story of a young soldier drafted to fight the First World War and his life as a permanent patient in a hospital where he is lying after being hit by an artillery shell.

The book consists of basically what Joe is thinking - so there's no outside perspective of what is actually happening. The highlight of the book is his realisation and his attempts at accepting his situation.

The book has a very pacifist voice, and was even used as a point to stop involvement in wars. It describes Joe's childhood, his parents, the time he went fishing, his short adolescent love life and in the middle of one these jumbles memories he realises he has no arms. They must have had to chop it off. And when he feels top heavy and sinking, he eventually realises he has no legs either. No face, breathing through a tube. And he wonders in astonishment at being still alive - people leave hospitals without arms, legs, sometimes faces gets blown off - but they live. But how could all the worst possibilities happen to him all at once - and he realises that one miniscule probability exists to whom the worst possible can happen.

He tries to keep himself busy, to get a grasp of time, to count the days, weeks and years which pass by with him as a vegetable. With nothing to do but think, he comes to the conclusion that life is too precious to waste fighting someone else's war to the point he gets aggressive in his mind about the benefit of democracy to the man dead or incapacitated like him.

His attempts of communicating succeed one day, thanks to a nurse. Using Morse code which he used as a kid to talk to a childhood friend on rainy days, he finally gets through. He begs the doctors to kill him and after a while he understand that he would rather live, even if as a circus freak enclosed in a glass case to be shown to the world as the horrors of war.

The book is extremely touching, to the point that in one scene Joe drifts between dream and reality and imagines a rat biting away at his side while he can't do anything about it, can't shake it off, can't cry for help, you imagine his plight and just want to get through the part and know that he is alright.

Dalton Trumbo writes in a very uncharacteristic way for his time, a little reminiscent of Hemingway. Short sentences, no punctuation, drifting between reality and dream, sudden shifts of memories - all of these make the book all the more wonderful. It's a very fast read and gets the point across about war. The book is a classic and though not many know of it, the story should be familiar to all fans of Metallica. Their song 'One', was written based on the book, and the music video uses actual footage from the movie. And for someone who likes the song, the book will induce a few smiles as you find the lines taken verbatim. And in case you are wondering, the title of the book is a play on “Johnny get your gun” - a sentence which was used to encourage the young men to join the army.


 


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