That previous sentence, by the way, is not an exaggeration. This is a dark, dark book -- dark enough that I'm not sure I agree with the publisher's suggested age range of 10-14, as I'm having trouble conceiving of a 10-year-old who'd be ready for the emotional gut-punch that The Button War packs. By the novel's end, it's firmly into Joseph Conrad territory, and I don't think that's overstating the point. (Some spoilers follow.)
World War I was (in)famously one of the most opaquely motivated of major conflicts, and Avi does an excellent job of capturing that aspect of it. Though the village changes hands multiple times, and soldiers from at least four different nations make an appearance, the villagers generally regard the entire war in the same way they might think of an earthquake, or a meteor impact. Indeed, their reaction to the German soldiers' claim to have "liberated" the villagers is somewhere between bemusement and bewilderment. Like a natural disaster, the war cannot be understood or stopped. The most that one can hope for is to escape its path without losing too much in the process.
The boys' button dare is similar. The buttons have almost no intrinsic value, and even the choice of them as a prize is arbitrary, driven by a random event at the beginning of the book. Yet, even though the majority of the boys wish to back away from the whole affair, they continue -- even after multiple deaths -- until the bitter, bitter ending.
The major reason is the presence of Jurek, who's a powerful antagonist. Of all the boys, he's the one closest to the fringes of society -- his parents are both dead, and he lives in a tiny shack with his sister, who ekes out a meager living by washing the Russian soldiers' uniforms, and with whom he is constantly fighting. It's obvious from the text that he's struggling with feelings of inferiority. His initial method of compensating is to declare himself to be a descendant of King Bolesław, and thus the true owner of the entire forest. However, he keeps pushing further and further, and by the end of the book, he's a pure sociopath, capable of anything up to and including murder.
If he were only a sociopath, Jurek would be easily dealt with. But, as I mentioned above, he's also wildly charismatic -- even when the other boys have grave doubts about his ideas, or think of him as a lunatic, or actively dangerous, they're seemingly incapable of going against him, or even just ignoring him. True charisma can be a frightening thing, because it's utterly value-neutral. Someone who has it can be Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mick Jagger, or Grigori Rasputin, or Adolf Hitler. Through the character of Jurek, Avi takes a painfully long look at this fact, and what he finds is unsettling.
Avi, of course, already has a Newbery Medal in his pocket (Crispin: The Cross of Lead, 2003). The Button War certainly excels in its setting, and in its powerful anti-war and anti-herd mentality themes. I don't know if the Newbery committee would be willing to give the award to a book this bleak -- if it were to win, I feel like it would race past Sounder and The Giver and even The Slave Dancer as the grimmest book in the Newbery canon. But its merits are sufficient to deserve a close look anyway.
Published in June by Candlewick Press