Sunday, April 23, 2017

Across the Blue Pacific by Louise Borden, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker

It's the winter of 1943, when Molly Crenshaw is in second grade and her next door neighbor, Ted Walker, finishes submarine training and comes home on leave. Molly and her younger brother Sam just want to hang around all day with their real-life hero, after all, who else could help them build a naval snowman or show them how to spit shine their Sunday-best shoes.

Then, in March Ted receives his orders and learns he is heading to the war in the Pacific on a submarine called the USS Albacore. Molly and Sam begin to write weekly letters to Ted, letters that always include a drawing of the Walker's dog, Buttons. During the summer, they hang around Mrs. Walker's porch, listening to the radio. When school begins again, Molly's third grade year just flies by.

In September, 1944, Molly's fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Linsay and a few students paint a world map on one the walls of the school, including every country and all the islands in the Pacific. The map helped Molly imagine where and what Ted might be up to on that small submarine in the so, so large Pacific Ocean.

Then, two days before Christmas, Molly and Sam notice a lot of black cars parked in Mrs. Walker's driveway. Ted's Uncle Will tells them the sad news that the USS Albacore never returned from its last patrol and now, Ted is MIA- Missing in Action.

The days immediately after receiving this news drag by, but eventually life, though now different, returns to a steadier routine. Suddenly, remembering everything about Ted becomes an important memory to keep. The war finally ends in August 1945, Molly begins fifth grade, but looking at the world map still on the school wall, she begins to think about all those soldiers on both sides of the war, ally and enemy, who didn't come home, just as Ted didn't, and how stories of those other lost loved ones are passed down, "in different ways and in different voices/from family to family,/and from neighbor to friend.../the stories/that are important enough to keep.

Across the Blue Pacific is basically a home front story, told from Molly's point of view, and looking back as a adult to those intense years when the war became a reality for her in the figure of Ted Walker. It is told in Borden's well-crafted, sensitive free-verse, a style she has mastered so that Molly's story never loses its sense of poignancy and thoughtful introspection.

Parker's ink and watercolor illustrations alternate between Molly's life at home and Ted life on the submarine, and are done in a subdued, loose-line style that distances the reader (along with Molly) from the war years, but also gives those years a real sense of unsteadiness.

Across the Blue Pacific is a story that has its roots in reality, as you will discover when you read Borden's Author's Note. The real Ted Walker was an uncle whom Borden never knew, an executive officer aboard the USS Albacore. Do read the Note if you want to find out what happened to the submarine, according to the US Navy.

Across the Blue Pacific is a picture book for older readers that deals with the impact of war, loss, and grief on the life of a young girl in elementary school, and the importance of memory to keep those lost alive in our thoughts.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Night Witches: A Novel of World War II by Kathryn Lasky

It 1941, and the Nazi have just begun Operation Barbarossa, their invasion of Russia. Nazi soldier have surrounded Stalingrad on three sides (the fourth side is the Volga River), making it impossible for people and supplies to get in or out of the city. After her mother was killed by a Nazi sniper, Valentina Petrovna Baskova, or Valya, 16, sees no reason for not joining her sister Tatyana as a Night Witch, a fighter pilot with the 588th Regiment. Her father, a pilot, hasn't been heard from since he left to fight, and is MIA.

With the help of Yuri, an old classmate now turned Russian sniper, Valya sets off for the river where ferries are rumored to be taking people across in the morning. Unfortunately, so many people are fleeing Stalingrad, that Valya is unable to get on the ferry, and ends up unwillingly manning antiaircraft guns in Trench 301 run by another school friend, Anna.

Valya is stuck fighting in the Trench 301, always looking up into the night sky and wondering if one the Night Witches she sees could be her sister, making her long to be part of it all the more. But no one in the Trench 301 really believes a 16 year old can fly a plane. Finally, it is again rumored that civilians will be allowed to cross it. Valya makes it to the docks, but just as she is about to board, Yuri shows up and pulls her away, saving her life.

It's in the dead of winter that Valya finally makes it across the frozen river, escorted by Yuri, who seems to know exactly where the secreted 588th Regiment is located. At last, Valya makes it to Night Witches, and finds her sister Tatyana. And despite all she has already been through, her real adventure as a Night Witch has only just begun.

Night Witches is a pretty exciting, fast-paced story with perhaps a little poetic license.  Valya is a strong female main character, who exhibits plenty of level-headed self-confidence even in a dangerous situation, yet retains the impulsiveness of her age.  I have to admit, however, her jealousy and the way she constantly compared herself to her older sister annoyed me (um, too close to home, perhaps?). Still, the very strong bond between the sisters which becomes all the more evident when Tatyana's plane is shot down and Valya refuses to believe she could be dead and vows to find her.

The story of the Night Witches is not a familiar story to today's readers, and Lasky's book certainly has a great deal of appeal going for it. Since most WWII books for young readers focus on the home front, the war in European theater, and to a lesser extent, the war in the Pacific theater, Lasky has included some information as part of the narrative to give readers some sense of context. But, the use of female fighter pilots was such an unusual phenomenon in WWII, that I would have liked Back Matter with some addition information about the Night Witches and perhaps suggestions for further reading.

While there is some strong language, and some of the fighting is a bit graphic, especially while Valya is fighting in Trench 301, it isn't overly done. My first introduction to Russia's women pilots was in an old book called Comrades of the Air (1942) by Dorothy Carter, a story about a female pilot in the ATA who ferries a plane to Russia, so it is nice to read a book from a Russian perspective.

Did you think that Valya was too young to fly? Here is an interesting article about Russia's Night Witches from The Atlantic magazine about the real women pilots who actually did range in age from 17 to 26.

I really enjoyed this book but one thing bothered me. At some point, Valya refers to the popular slogan in England "Keep Calm and Carry On." This was one of three posters the government issued to boost morale. But it was only supposed to be used in case of invasion, which never happened. For more about this, see my post of 2012 Keep Calm and (fill in the blank).

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss/Above the Treeline

Since Night Witches is a YA novel, may I recommend a work of nonfiction as a two supplements to those interested in these brave pilots that were recommended to me by Gwen Katz, author of the upcoming novel Among the Red Stars (also about the Night Witches. They are A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in WWII by Anne Noggle, published by Texas A&M University Press, 1994, 2007; and Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat by Reina Pennington, University Press of Kansas, 2007.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Bloodlines: Heart of War by M. Zachary Sherman

Bloodlines: Heart of War is the story of the Donovans, an American family, and consists of eight stories that cover four generations of that family as they serve in five different American wars.

Each story followers one family member at a particular time in the war they are fighting in, beginning with WWII and Private First Class Michael Donovan, a parachutist in the U.S. Army 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment AKA Dog Company. Donovan parachutes behind enemy lines in France, in order to help secure a base of operations in preparation for the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France. Of course, nothing is as easy as it sounds, and Donovan lands without his equipment bag, no weapon, and a German patrol passing by. And his story just gets scarier and more dangerous from there, but ultimately, courage and determination guide his actions to the end of the mission.

The second story is also set in WWII and is an exciting saboteur tale. Michael Donovan’s brother, First Lieutenant Aaron Donovan is part of the U.S. Army’s Office of Strategic Services. His mission is to board a German submarine located in Gilleleje, Denmark, sabotage it so that the Germans will have to evacuate the sub, and while that is happening, Donovan and his companion are to steal the new codebooks for decoding the latest Enigma codes. It’s a daring mission, not everything goes a planned, but again Donovan strength and courage win the day.

A third Donovan brother is a U.S. Marine Captain Everett Donovan during the Korean War. Captain Donovan finds himself the only survivor of…what? He couldn’t remember, but he can figure out that he is in North Korea and the temperature is 35° below zero. With the bayonet of a Korean sniper aimed at him, Donovan suddenly remembers his mission - he and his Counterintelligence Marines were supposed to scout the area known as Toktong Pass, making sure it is clear for U.S. and U.N. Forces to advance through in the morning. But this Korean sniper had a real surprise for Captain Donovan.

In this fourth story, we meet the Donovan brothers cousin, Private First Class Tony Donovan of the U.S. Army’s 249th Engineer Battalion, who is also stationed in Korea. When a C-119 cargo plane crashes behind enemy with Donovan and his men on it, they know they had to get out of that area and back to safety as quickly a possible. But first they had to try and repair a jeep they were carrying. And even at that, getting back to safety provea to be a dangerous trek, especially when a North Korean tank gets the jeep full of soldiers in it’s sights. How will they ever survive a hit from a tank?

Next is the story of Everett Donovan’s son, Lieutenant Verner Donovan, Everett’s son, a pilot in the VF-96 “Fighting Falcons” Squadron, part of the U.S. Navy. Verner, known as the “Candy Man” because of his fondness for chocolate, is stationed on a aircraft carrier in Vietnam. When he and his RIO (radio intercept officer) Blem receive a radio transmission from Marine recon unit Razor Two requesting air support after having stumbled into a Vietcong training camp, the two men spring into action. Locating the Marines, they soon discover they aren’t the only ones in the air - so are the enemy and the two men are forced to parachute out of the plane. Now, it is the Candy Man and Blem who need help. Will they make it out of the Vietcong jungle? 

Also in Vietnam is Captain Anne Donovan, a U.S. Army nurse, and Verner’s sister.  Finding herself in a M.A.S.H. unit, providing medical care to badly wounded and dying soldiers, Anne has something to prove - that she has what it takes to be a doctor some day. When she finds herself assisting a doctor during the Battle of Hamburger Hill, she learns the most valuable lesson of all - how to keep her emotions distanced from the carnage all around her in order to be strong for the soldiers who need her.

Lieutenant Commander Lester Donovan, Verner’s son and Anne’s nephew, is a U.S. Navy Seal stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Lester was a by-the-book officer, but the men he commanded wanted to see a little flexibility when needed. When the helicopter carrying Lester, his men and a Taliban prisoner is shot out of the sky, Donovan knows he has a difficult  choice to make - obey orders or defy them and search for his two missing men, taken prisoner by the Taliban and hidden in a dark cave. But which cave? There are so many used by the Taliban. 

This last story also features Lieutenant Commander Lester Donovan, now serving in Iraq. Based on information given to them by Iraqi Police Chief Hakedam, a supporter of Saddam Hussein’s old ruling party, Donovan, two of his men and a CIA agent hope to capture a black marketer and terrorist, Abdul Kasieem, whose stronghold is camouflaged as a goat farm near the Syrian border, and which contains an underground bunker loaded with weapons. But has the Police Chief played the Americans so that they would get rid of Kasieem and he, Hakedam, could be the only black marketer in town? 

Bloodlines: Hear of War is a very well-done collection of short stories for middle grade readers, many of who really like these types of military tales. There are lots of details about the conflicts that the Donovans find themselves fighting in, but they are not terribly graphic, though they are realistic. And even though I’m not a fan of combat stories, I did find them somewhat interesting. I like the way the author connected the family to each other in the stories. I know there are lots of military families like the Donovans, who will also find this and interesting book. 

There not much background as to what each war is about within the stories, however, there is a brief description of each of these U.S. Military Conflicts at the back of the book. I would have liked to see suggestions for further reading as well, but I did read an ARC so many the finished book has these things. Maybe kids who read and enjoy Bloodlines: Heart of War will be inspired to seek out more information about each conflict on their own.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley