word craft


Story Behind the Story #68: The Button War

It must have been some­thing like forty years ago.

I was vis­it­ing my father-in-law with my old­er boys. They were play­ing with some­thing they were col­lect­ing, per­haps base­ball cards, or some such.

Look­ing on, my father-in-law said, “When I was a kid, we boys col­lect­ed things, too.”

The sto­ry he told was rather unusu­al. He was raised in a vil­lage some­where in East­ern Europe, but with so many nation­al bound­ary changes, he could not even say pre­cise­ly which coun­try. Dur­ing World War One, he said, his vil­lage was invad­ed and tak­en over by now this army, now that, from dif­fer­ent nations. When these armies took over his vil­lage, the sol­diers com­man­deered the women to wash their uni­forms. Once washed, the uni­forms were hung out to dry. The boys in the village—so my father-in-law related—would sneak about, cut the but­tons from the uni­forms, col­lect them, and trade them amongst them­selves. This in the midst of The Great War.

The Button WarI nev­er for­got the sto­ry, and it is that tale upon which I based my newest book, The But­ton War.

The essence of the plot—I set it in (Russ­ian occu­pied) Poland—at the unset of World War One—is how a group of boys engage in a con­test as to who can steal the best mil­i­tary but­ton from the dif­fer­ent armies that attack and occu­py their iso­lat­ed vil­lage. What begins as a lark, and a fair­ly harm­less (and inno­cent) series of dares, esca­lates into some­thing very much more omi­nous, even as the vio­lence in the vil­lage intensifies.

If you read about World War One, when “The lights went out all over Europe,” you are struck how, by com­mon his­tor­i­cal agree­ment, The Great War (as it was called) was a war that had no par­tic­u­lar mean­ing, oth­er than ego, nation­al­is­tic rival­ry, as well as pro­found and lethal stu­pid­i­ty. Dur­ing the war, some­thing like six­teen mil­lion peo­ple were killed, many of them civil­ians, often in the most ghast­ly ways. The war destroyed ancient empires, caused mul­ti­ple rev­o­lu­tions, and vir­tu­al­ly ensured that World War Two would hap­pen, with its own atten­dant hor­rors. A fair num­ber of the con­se­quences of The Great War are still being played out today, a hun­dred years lat­er. One could argue that The Great War has nev­er end­ed, To encap­su­late all of this in a short nov­el would not have been pos­si­ble, and indeed fool­ish to have even been attempt­ed. My sto­ry is about boys, boys who, in their inno­cence and sense of fun, their dares, echo (with­out their know­ing it) the cru­el and destruc­tive fol­ly of their adult world.

As part of my research for the book I began to col­lect mil­i­tary but­tons from World War One. You may see them on the cov­er of the book.

I found the­ses but­tons fas­ci­nat­ing. One could have invent­ed a sto­ry about each one of them. Who wore it? Where? What hap­pened to the per­son? What expe­ri­ences did that per­son have? How did these but­tons ever come to be post­ed on eBay™, where I dis­cov­ered and bought them?

To my own sur­prise, I found myself want­i­ng more and more of these but­tons. I, too, want­ed the best one. Which is what The But­ton War is all about.

I dare you to read it.

4 thoughts on “Story Behind the Story #68: <em>The Button War</em>”

  1. Morn­ing, Avi, As Pres­i­dent of the Long Island Radio and Tele­vi­sion His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety, we bought a num­ber of radios, phones etc from WWI from Ama­zon and I saw a num­ber of these but­tons on sale. I was tempt­ed but they did­n’t fit what we were exhibit­ing. I have to be care col­lect­ing things as I already went through ted­dy bears, gar­goyles and music box­es. Oh and of course, stamps. Con­nie Currie

  2. Can’t wait to read this—your sto­ries nev­er dis­ap­point! I know how addict­ing col­lect­ing can be as I con­tin­ue to col­lect auto­graphed children’s books, orig­i­nal art from children’s books, ver­sions of The Night Before Christ­mas books, Oax­a­ca carved ani­mals, Mata Ortiz pot­tery, Sun faces, hearts, lac­quered box­es from India, hedge­hogs, small chick­en figures&.….….….

  3. I love your work, Avi. And have long appre­ci­at­ed your gen­eros­i­ty in shar­ing the back­sto­ry. Many Thanks!


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