Theory of War – Joan Brady

The BookDepository

Winner of the Whitbread Prize 1993

The Theory of War is story of a white child sold into slavery in post-Civil War America. At just four-years-old Jonathan is sold to Alvah Stokes, who treats him terribly. Alvah’s son George taunts Jonathan, and it is hatred for him that lasts throughout his lifetime, and leads to Jonathan tracking him down to seek revenge.

The Theory of War is based on the true story of the author’s grandfather. I actually found the author’s note at the end of the book one of the most interesting sections. In it she explains how four of her grandfather’s seven children (including her father) committed suicide. She blames their deaths on the emotional scarring of slavery, and wrote the book in an attempt to understand what he went through. It is this emotional attachment to the text that makes this such a good book.

The book switches between Jonathan’s difficult live as a slave, and the story of his grandaughter learning about what he went through for the first time. At just over 200 pages this isn’t very long, but there are a lot of strong messages contained in it; not only about the importance of compassion for everyone, but also discussions on disability and war.

A war between two people is not all that different from a war between two countries.

I loved the ending – I didn’t see it coming at all, and thought it gave a fitting finish to this book.

I have to admit that the book lost some of it’s momentum in the middle section. Jonathan’s life as an adult didn’t have as much appeal to me, and I thought the book could have benefited from concentrating on his experiences as a slave. This is only a minor complaint though, and think this is a deserving winner of the Whitbread prize.




NB. There is a lot of strong language in this book, which may offend some people.

I haven’t actively followed the Costa/Whitbread prize, although I have read and enjoyed a few, most notably The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman.

Do you enjoy reading Costa/Whitbread books?

If so, which has been your favourite?

Send to Kindle


  1. Susannah says:

    Hi Jackie! No problem at all; I’m in the last few days of my school term, so I can commiserate :) rhodesbrooks at gmail dot com. I’ll have to take a look at my blog this week to figure out what to ask you as well!

  2. Lu says:

    I haven’t read the seance, but I wouldn’t be totally opposed to reading it. A lot of people have really great things to say about The Ghost Writer, but I’ve found the people that don’t like it, don’t like it for the same reasons I said. I guess it just depends on if those things bother you. They’re deal-breakers for me, but some readers might not be so put-off by the choices Harwood made.

    Let me know what you think if you do read it! :D

  3. Beth F says:

    Nice review. Sounds like an interesting premise, but I don’t think this is one that I’d be inclined to pick up.

  4. I see you’ve got Best Intentions on your TBR pile. I’m reading it right now and I am enjoying it immensely. It’s not something I would normally pick up but it’s fun.

  5. Jackie says:

    I’ve never known one post to go so off topic! I don’t mind – I love all comments!

    Susannah – Great! I’ll email you soon.

    Lu – I’ll probably read Ghost Writer soon, and I’ll make sure I let you know what I thought.

    Beth – It is good, but not worth rushing out to buy a copy straight away – unlike Fingersmith!!!

    Candy – I’m pleased that you are enjoying Best Intentions – I hope to read it sometime in the next week.

  6. DebD says:

    This book sounds fascinating. Tree of my paternal grandfather’s younger siblings were sold into indentured servitude – not quite slavery, but very close. My Great-uncle was treated very badly but I only knew him as a happy and contented man.

    I’m definitely adding this to my TBR pile.

  7. Jackie says:

    DebD – I think your family history will add to the appeal of this book – I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

Leave a Reply