Summary: Enlisting early in the air force at the age of sixteen to escape an abusive situation at home, Kak is in England and in over his head. As the wireless operator in a bomber plane during World War II, he is so traumatised by his first couple of times on the job bombing targets in Germany that he wants to quit. Quitting isn’t an option though and while everyone must complete a minimum of thirty missions, it is rare for bombers to live that long. Kak’s watching his friends die left and right as planes don’t come back from their missions, and his only solace is found in caring for the pigeons that accompany them on their missions. Befriended by Bert, the pigeons’ caretaker, Kak finds his way through this terrible time in his life as best he can with the support of others.
Number of Pages: 321
Age Range: 14-16
Review: Nicknamed the Kakabeka Kid because of where he’s originally from, Kak (for short) is a young man who enters into an untenable situation to avoid another equally untenable situation. In the choice between dealing with abuse and fighting in a war, war seems like the better option to the sixteen year-old. But the familiar story experienced by many who signed up for the war is true for Kak as well. Being in the Air Force is not what he expected.
Through B for Buster, Iain Lawrence takes a common situation and draws out the uniqueness in it. I knew about bomber planes in World War II. I knew how completing a tour of duty was incredibly challenging and unlikely, and I knew some used the war as an opportunity to get away from their home lives.
But I didn’t know about the role of pigeons in the planes, and I learned a lot about psychological impact of being in such a situation again and again, watching the people around you die and feeling like it’s only a matter of time before you’re next. Lawrence presents these complex issues in a way that made sense and remains engaging throughout the entire 321 pages. In another story about World War II, this is not an easy feat.
There were a couple of aspects of Lawrence’s book I particularly loved. The first was the dynamic between Kak and the pigeons. In his time of repeated trauma, his friendship with Bert leads to contact with the pigeons which acts as a balm to his wounds. Caring for the birds helps him keep going, it’s an example of animal-assisted therapy. Subtle, powerful, and exactly what Kak needs as their gentle connection with him gives him a safe place to spend his down time.
I was also intrigued by Lawrence’s exploration of the role of good luck charms in feeling some control in an uncontrollable situation. Each time the crew is about to take another flight, going on another mission, they all have something they believe will protect them. The items range from a pipe to a four leaf clover to a ray gun ring (my favourite) to, finally, a pigeon, which is why I was initially confused at the crew’s indifference to Kak losing his good luck charm. They all know the importance of having these items to try and assuage their fears, but Lawrence also highlights how various people deal with stress in different ways.
While Kak hangs out with Bert and the pigeons, the rest of his crew tries to forget by drinking themselves into oblivion. No one knows Kak is sixteen and not a fan of drinking, so it seems like he is intentionally snubbing them and this belief prevents crew bonding. This is why they don’t take his anxiety seriously when he loses his ray gun ring.
I love how Bert comes to the rescue by giving Kak his best pigeon, Percy, and convincing Kak that if Percy goes on his missions with him, he’ll be okay. And it completely works because Kak believes him and trusts Percy. It doesn’t matter what a good luck charm is as long as the person believes it is a good luck charm. There’s something profound about that.
Lawrence’s book is a thought-provoking piece of historical fiction and I found learning about the involvement of pigeons in the war fascinating. A bird as a hero was a new concept for me, and Kak was an involving character I ended up caring a great deal about. It was one of those books that I was sorry when the story was over.
“But I stretched out on my bed, and I knew he was right. Mine and all the others were empty because a bomber hadn’t come home. Our beds didn’t only look like rows of graves. That was exactly what they were.” – Kak from B for Buster by Iain Lawrence, page 11
“‘No,’ I said. ‘Real courage is not being scared.’
‘Oh, no, sir. Pardon me.’ He tipped his head, as though saluting. ‘Real courage is carrying on though you’re scared to bits. It’s doing what you ‘ave to do. Birds are scared of lighting; men are scared of dying. Anything else wouldn’t be proper, sir. But we all ‘ave to carry on. Every living thing. Men and birds and fish and worms, we all just carry on.'” – Conversation between Kak and Bert about courage from B for Buster by Iain Lawrence, page 111
“It was an unnerving sound in an unnerving place. The city seemed to have drawn up, struggling to defend itself. The machines above, the lights and guns below, it made me think of a war being fought without people, just thing against thing.” – Kak from B for Buster by Iain Lawrence, page 148
“It amazed me that he would give me the best bird in the loft, his favourite of the bunch, and that he would do it with a smile. But maybe the most amazing thing of all was that I believed that Percy would save me.
I looked into the bird’s dark eyes, at the halo of sparkling stars, and I did believe it. There was a strength inside him that seemed to pulse through my hands. I felt his heart beating, his little breast heaving, and something passed from him to me. I knew what the Green Lantern had felt the first time he had touched his ring to the magical lantern. I just knew that I was safe, that I was suddenly strong and unbeatable.”Kak talking about Percy the pigeon becoming his good luck charm from B for Buster by Iain Lawrence, page 194