Book Review: Semper Fido, A Story For Kids About War
“I looked at the trash and the rubble. I thought.
Every pile of rocks could hide another bomb, every mound of dirt could conceal a land mine. Every plastic bag could be a trip wire. Every step could be my last.
I exhaled. No time to hesitate. Better not to think about it.”
Semper Fido doesn’t mince words. The first book in the Dog Tags series takes you right to the war zone with Corporal Gus Dempsey, a US Marine stationed in Afghanistan. Gus is a dog handler, who trains and works with his dog, Loki, to find bombs and keep his fellow Marines safe.
This is 19-year-old Gus’s first deployment, and his inexperience shows. His earnestness and determination make him charming and uptight at the same time. Gus prefers the company of dogs to people, but he slowly learns that to survive a war you have to open up to others and risk getting hurt.
Semper Fido is a story for kids that portrays the seriousness of war without being scary. Author C. Alexander London has explained the technicalities of life in the Marines – the ranks, acronyms, and procedures – in a way that kids can understand without being overwhelmed. Gus explains them to the reader as if he were talking to a friend, giving parallels to fictional worlds of elves and dragons.
The book doesn’t tug at the heartstrings and leave you weeping when characters die or are injured (this is a war, after all), but London does a wonderful job taking us inside Gus’s mind and his relationship with Loki. We’re with Gus when he first meets Loki, and we stay with the pair throughout training and deployment. Gus is barely out of his teens, yet he’s a highly trained Marine who has to face fire and fight back. His conflicting emotions throughout the war introduce war’s gray area; there is no black and white when you’re faced with flying bullets, bombs, and decisions – just survival and loyalty.
Semper Fido is so realistic I expected London to be a war veteran. Though never a soldier, he used to work as a journalist reporting from war zones, and his comfort in writing about conflict shines through. Semper Fido is raw and real. This is a story for kids, but this is not a glossy glorification of war. Gus has to make life-or-death decisions in split seconds. People are killed or injured. But Gus’s youth, innocence, and courage are soothing as he narrates the book. Reading Gus and Loki’s story isn’t likely to be frightening for kids aged 10 and older. Instead, they’ll root for the duo’s safety.
My favourite part of the book was one of the real-life mottos the Marines employ: “Embrace the suck.” It’s a life lesson for kids in the ordinary world, too: Life isn’t always going to be easy or happy, and very often it will, quite simply, suck. Accepting that is the first step to defeating it — instead of letting it defeat you.