the absurdity of war laid bare in a pro-peace story for nations and families

written by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Robyn Belton - published by Walker Books, 2009
ages 2 to 12 years / emotional resilience

You’ll have to put the war off for three weeks. By that time, the duck will have hatched her eggs, and you will have your gun back.

First published in 1969, The Duck in the Gun has become a story for the ages. It was newly illustrated in 1984, adding to the humour of the situation and the story.

Here’s what happens: 

A General and his army are about to start a war with a town when they discover a duck has made a nest in the gun. 

Rather than just firing the gun anyway, the General approaches the Prime Minister of the town with a series of ideas and compromises – maybe they could borrow one of the town’s guns – maybe they could share a gun. 

Eventually the General and the Prime Minister agree to postpone the war until the ducklings hatch. 

In the meantime, the soldiers begin working in the town and the General falls in love with the Prime Minister’s daughter. 

All of which make war unthinkable when the baby ducks finally hatch.

This is a beautifully put together story – plenty of rapid-fire conversations (pardon the pun) and rhythm keep the story moving. 

There’s lovely symmetry between the General and his men – both feeding the duck without letting the other know - and the General and the Prime Minister’s daughter who come from opposite sides of the conflict.

The loud and clear message is that war is futile (and absurd) and that people have more in common than we might recognise at first. Rather than being simply anti-war, the book is pro-peace. 

It shows the soldiers working and socialising with the townspeople and the General losing his interest in war as his interest in the duck and the Prime Minister’s daughter grows. 

He begins to enjoy sitting in the sun and reading – the ultimate peaceful activity!

The Prime Minister offers to pay the soldiers to paint the town because “Men should not get money for doing nothing.” Although the soldiers are not pleased when they first hear that they must go to work, they come to appreciate the town and feel good about their work. 

So much so that they ask to stay and finish the work and then go home, rather than have a war.

There are all sorts of other ideas to think about here, for instance:

- The importance of not judging a book by its cover – the General looks like quite the personification of a military man but he turns out to have a soft side.

- The effects that war has on the innocent – for example, the townspeople and even the soldiers who follow orders.

- The benefits of waiting for a time before rushing into conflict – the three weeks waiting period proved to be enough to stop a war.

- Animals deserve respect and deference too.

- Noticing that what we see at first as a problem can actually be a blessing in disguise.

- The importance of getting to know your enemies.

It's a superb book to read when:

- There’s contention at home or at school etc.

- The world feels a little unstable or off balance – there’s the promise of recovery in this story.

- You’re hoping to stir up a bit of indignation about war generally.

- You’re looking for a story that is enjoyable, off beat and humorous while still presenting an important message.

- You want to teach the benefits of working (in this story the benefits aren’t limited to the results of the work – the work also led to improved well being for the soldiers, clearer understanding of the world around them and friendships.)

- There's a need to overcome fear of the unknown.

You can buy The Duck in the Gun via these direct links: Amazon - Booktopia