Michael Morpurgo’s new novel, A Medal for Leroy, is one that draws on inspiration from the fate of a real-life war hero, but a few family skeletons also inform the author’s moving tale of loss and uncertain identity.
Michael, or ‘Poodle’ as his classmates call him on account of his frizzy black hair, knows very little about his father.
Growing up in London during the 1940s, the devastating effects of the Second World War are still fresh, and despite Michael’s careful probing, all his ‘Maman’ will tell him about his father is that his name was Roy and that he was an RAF Spitfire pilot who was tragically shot down over the English Channel during the Battle of Britain in 1940.
However, Michael yearns to learn more. He and his French mother regularly pay visits to Roy’s so-called Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop, two sisters who are believed to have adopted Roy as a baby after his own mother was killed in a Zeppelin air raid during the First World War.
The past begins to resurface when a fateful package from Auntie Snowdrop containing an old photograph reaches Michael and exposes him to the reality of his Aunt’s relationship with a brave black soldier named Leroy.
History, and Michael’s life as he knows it, is about to change dramatically in this touching tale that encompasses wider issues of prejudice as well as a personal quest for identity.
As Michael Morpurgo explains in an article in The Telegraph, it was his friend and illustrator, Michael Foreman, who helped to sow the seeds for Medal For Leroy.
Foreman drew the author’s attention to the life of Walter Tull, a black man who defied the odds and climbed the ranks to become the first ever black officer to serve in the British Army.
Tull’s exceptional talent for football and his cool gallantry in battle are recognisable qualities in the character of Leroy.
Tull’s failure to receive a well-deserved Military Cross in honour of his World War One heroics appealed to Michael’s fondness for representing injustice in his writing, and the ‘medal’ becomes an important motif for the soldier Leroy’s forgotten bravery in the novel.
Yet, Michael’s fiction is also built on more personal foundations, as the theme of family secrets that underpin this powerful story can be traced back to the author’s own childhood.
The image of a happy, conventional family belied the reality of a post-war divorce that had been brushed under the carpet, whilst Michael and his brother grew up without knowing their real father.
As such, historical inspiration and personal experience combine to produce this masterful account of love, loss and exorcising the family ghost.
A Medal for Leroy is now available in hardback