Life Choices in Captain Mack & Billy Mack’s War By James Roy

Life Choices in Captain Mack & Billy Mack’s War By James Roy

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Captain Mack and Billy Mack’s War by James Roy are both "heart warming and thought provoking" (Reading Time) insights into the tangles of childhood and early adolescence. Published by University of Queensland Press (UQP) in 1999 and 2004 respectively, both explore the theme of how choices define who we are and what we become. Both of these books explore unlikely friendships, with two central characters in completely different settings, they are intriguingly written in a mixture of narrative methods but are a relaxed and enjoyable read.

"James Roy was born an odd colour in Trundle Base Hospital [NSW] in 1968 and got to ride in an ambulance shortly after. Strangely he doesn’t remember the name of the driver." (Inside Cover – C.M.) He spent much of his childhood in missionary camps in Papua New Guinea and Fiji. This is where his love of literature began, he spent his days playing on the beaches and coral islands, but at night he would read books and dream of one day writing his own. Captain Mack is Roy’s third book and was short-listed for a Children’s Book Council of Australia (C.B.C.A.) Award. Billy Mack’s War is Roy’s seventh book, which he has written after many calls to complete the open-ended conclusion of Captain Mack. It has also won a C.B.C.A. honour award; "Roy’s well written story is full of insight and compassion without resort to sentimentality." (C.B.C.A.) James Roy’s style of writing is relaxed, succinct and subtle but thought provoking. He now lives with his family in the Blue Mountains and enjoys sailing, bushwalking and performing in his band ‘Cranky Franky.’ Roy draws on some of these varied life experiences to create the plots for his books.

"Captain Mack is an adventure about heroes and unlikely friendships" (Back Cover – C.M.) The book centres on 12-year-old Danny Snell who is bullied at school due to his crooked eye. He befriends an old man, known as Captain Mack, who thinks the nursing home in which he lives is a P.O.W. camp. Captain Mack is moved to a new nursing home, which he truly hates, he then calls on Danny to help him escape. Their friendship grows and there comes a time for Danny to make some tough decisions. Billy Mack’s War is the prequel to Captain Mack, Captain Mack is dead but his son William wants to meet Danny. This is William’s story; it takes Danny and the reader back to 1945 when William - then known as Billy - was a boy.

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It gives the reader the basis for the circumstances in Captain Mack and also helps us understand the behaviour of the characters, developing a genuine sympathy and compassion for them.

The central character to both texts is Danny Snell. Danny is a likeable character who is sympathetic, friendly and understanding, however he can be somewhat naïve. During his experiences in the book he develops his identity as “Dan the Man” (P.233 – B.M.W.) by standing up for his unlikely friend Captain Mack. Fred McAuliffe, otherwise known as Captain Mack, is a funny old man who is a likeable character. He adds gentle humour to the first book with his deluded ways. When we first meet the son of Captain Mack, called William he is not a likeable character at all. He comes across as snobbish, insensitive and self centred – everything that Danny is not. In Billy Mack’s War, he tells his story of growing up while his father was away during World War Two. While this book doesn’t really explain his actions in Captain Mack, it does show his softer side as a boy growing up without his father. He had to take on the role of the ‘man of the house’ helping his mother and grandparents. He has to learn the same lessons as Danny – about when to stand up and fight and when to turn his back.
“It’s about knowing when to walk away from a scrap, and it’s about knowing when to scrap for all ye’re worth.” (P.226 – B.M.W.) This is a common theme in both books. The books teach that the choices we make define the people that we become; “Nobody ever did or ever will escape the consequences of their choices.” (Alfred A. Montapert) For example in Captain Mack, Danny helps Captain Mack escape from his nursing home ‘Redgrange’ which is “a hole” (P.74 – C.M.). However his plan doesn’t work, he learns the hard way, that although what he did was a good thing, because it “came of good intentions” (P.142 – C.M.) it wasn’t the right thing. Through experiences like this both Danny and Billy in Billy Mack’s War learn when it’s the right time to stand up and when to back down.

A second theme in both texts is that of heroes and friendship. Friends can be found in the most unusual places, and age doesn’t have to be a barrier, Captain Mack proves. There are many years separating Captain Mack and Danny, but the relationship still proves very rewarding for them both. Danny became a hero when he stood up to Shaun and Grant. After they were expelled he became quite a celebrity. It turned out that they had been disliked by many more people than Danny had realised. Billy in Billy Mack’s War thought his father – Captain Mack was a hero, after all he’d won a Victoria Cross Medal. However “The Japs caught him didn’t they? And heroes don’t get caught. That was how many folks saw it anyway.” (P.42 – B.M.W.) This was something Billy struggled with, it was something that he made and lost friends over. He stood up to Barry and ‘decked’ him for saying that his father had the easy way out of the war, by being captured by the Japanese. Later Billy apologised and he and Barry became good friends, but his best friend Doug became jealous because of the attention he received when he returned. Doug took the endemic local view that Captain Mack was not a hero; he had failed medal or no medal. Although the town was pleased to see Captain Mack home, many in Evansbridge held that view.

Captain Mack is set in the present day suburbs of Sydney. This is where Danny and his father live, where Danny goes to school and where he visits Captain Mack in his nursing homes(s). Billy Mack’s War is still set in Sydney, but the reader is taken back to Evansbridge (probably based on Evandale) in Tasmania, in 1945, through the story of Billy. This is where Billy goes to school and where he lives on a dairy farm. Billy also visits Launceston with his father. The locations in which the books are set are well described and easy to visualise. However it is also the values and attitudes of the people that vary between the settings, that are also well described by James Roy. He gives the reader a real feeling and understanding for each setting. The simple settings are enhanced by the way the story is told.

Captain Mack is written exclusively in third person. Narrated from the main character’s perspective, this method is easy to read and is well used by James Roy. The reader can understand Danny’s thoughts and feelings but also can take in the whole scene and see things from other characters points of view. Billy Mack’s War is an interesting combination of first and third person narrative method. The present day scenes in Sydney are again in third person from Danny’s perspective. However the chapters from Billy’s perspective back in 1945 are written in first person. This is because these chapters are actually a direct quote from William McAuliffe as he tells his childhood story to Danny. Roy has chosen to do this because it helps to define and separate the modern day stories from those of Billy in the past. A decision by the publishers to print these chapters in a different font also contributes to that effect.

Both of these books have been beautifully written by James Roy. They are written in simple but effective language, and contain a subtle yet poignant message that gently delivers the themes. Neither books fit the usual clichéd coming of age story – ‘boy tries to define his identity in a changing world, fights with parents and can’t get the girl he’s head over heels with.’ These boys – Billy and Danny – come of age in a different way, learning similar lessons in life but in completely different situations – half a century apart. They both come of age through the choices they make. Danny makes the choice not to give into Shaun and Grant, and Billy disobeying his father when asked to shoot the cow giving birth. These books remind us “It is the ability to choose that makes us human.” (Madeline L’Engle) Overall I enjoyed Captain Mack the most, as it has more that I can identify with and it has an open ended but satisfying conclusion. I was a little disappointed that Danny never had his long awaited eye operation performed in Billy Mack’s War, however it was a fascinating insight into 1945. Even though I first read Captain Mack in grade six, which is Roy’s targeted audience, his quality of writing can be enjoyed by all ages. “Altogether a refreshingly subtle picture of growing up male.” (The Weekend Australian)


Roy, James; 1999; Captain Mack; University of Queensland Press; Australia
Roy, James; 2004; Bill Mack’s War; University of Queensland Press; Australia
ThinkExist 1999-2006; “Choice Quotes”; Quotations;
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