Shakespeare, Shirley Temple, Vladimir Nobokov, President James Buchanan
I made a foray over to the site Things Other People Accomplished When They Were Your Age, which will present you with a funny mix of sad and funny if you plug in the number 30. I happen to turn that number today and from the site I can see that I’ve a lot of catching up to do:
At age 30:
– Mark Twain published his first short story, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog." (Just his first, so I don’t feel too bad)
– Danish novelist Hans Christian Andersen published his book of fairy tales.
– Hank Williams overdosed on drugs and alcohol.
– Bill Gates was the first person ever to become a billionaire by age 30. (Doggone it)
Last year when I turned 30 I received in the mail my delightful little Fuseman, as shown here:
No forwarding address. No signed note. A truly intricate, truly mysterious gift. My co-workers and I pored over the works of different illustrators to determine the source.
"Maybe it’s Hanoch Piven?"
"No, he lives in Israel and this postage stamp is clearly from California."
I’m no detective so I basically gave up until 9 months later when I found myself at a lucnh with Richard Jackson and Katherine Tillotson. If you know Katherine’s work then you know that she does these lovely watercolors and dreamlike situations. She’s also meticulous. When she illustrated When the Library Lights Go Out, she actually constructed the stuffed animals for the book first and then painted them later. And sure as shooting, Katherine confessed that it was she who sent me my meticulous, miraculous, marvelous Fuseman. So, publicly and for all to hear, thank you, Katherine! It was a wonderful gift and he is with me always.
As per every year, my birthday present to myself is the chance to republish a review of one of my favorite books of the year. At 28 it was Fly By Night. At 29, The Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer. Now I am thirty. A little older. A little wiser. A little older. A little more prone to repeating myself. So instead of a fantasy, this year I’m going with a straightforward piece of historical fiction. I didn’t used to dig that genre, but this year’s book proves the exception to the rule (though I’m reading one right now that might have trumped this one as my favorite had I read it in time).
Shooting the Moon
By Frances O’Roark Dowell
Atheneum (Simon & Schuster)
On shelves now
I’ve written about this before, but there’s a flush of appreciation a reviewer experiences when they discover a great author that they’ve never read before. Even if that person has been around for years. In the case of Frances O’Roark Dowell, I’d read her first Phineas L. MacGuire book and I thought it was great. Still, I’d never gotten around to reading some of her better known works for older readers. I’d never picked up Dovey Coe or Chicken Boy or even The Secret Language of Boysage of Girls. It just never came up. Still, I figure a person’s got to start somewhere and so the book I decided to begin with her newest title, the historically minded Shooting the Moon. A lot of people love Ms. Dowell and maybe they’ve become unable to tell one great book of hers from another. To those people I say this: This book is amazing. Top notch, wonderful, humorous, meaningful, with a pull and a hit in the gut that’ll knock a readers’ socks off. What we’ve got here is a title that has an excellent chance of engaging every reader that comes across it. And timely doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Jamie Dexter is a card shark, an army brat, and her father’s daughter. She and her older brother TJ were raised to love the United States Army by their father, the Colonel, and as far as they’re concerned the greatest thing in the entire world is getting a chance to fight and die for your country. Seems like the Colonel would be pleased as punch to have TJ enlist and go to Vietnam to fight instead of going to college, but oddly enough that doesn’t seem to be the case. Still, off TJ goes and before he leaves Jamie asks him to write her letters about everything he sees and feels over there. Except that TJ doesn’t do that. Instead he sends her rolls of black and white film he’s taken over there with very precise instructions: "Jamie: No facilities here … Please develop and send contact sheets." Of course, that means that Jamie has to learn how to develop film, and she does when she gets a chance. And through TJ’s lens, Jamie sees more than just what it’s like in Vietnam. She now hears the experiences of the soldiers that walk through the rec center where she works. She sees her father as a man and not a larger than life figure. And she begins to understand that sometimes things aren’t as simple as you would like them to be.
Reading my description of the book I know that you might be a little worried. It sounds like a book inclined to get preachy, doesn’t it? I’m as anti-war as the best of them, but there’s nothing worse than a work of fiction for kids that gets all holier-than-thou, proselytizing its views on war and how it’s naughty. But Frances O’Roark Dowell isn’t going to play that game. For one thing, she really is an army brat. For another, she’s a good writer. This isn’t a book that tells you what to believe. It’s a book that starts with someone who thinks that they know what to think only to find that the world is a complicated place. It was a complicated place in the late 60s and it’s a complicated place today. Which is not to say that you can’t take a moral or a lesson out of this book if you want to. It’s only giving you an option.
There is a school of thought that says that if you place a story in history, you better have a darn good reason for doing so. So the question becomes, could Dowell have set this story in the here and now rather than the past? Would it have served the moral better? The answer is no, there is no other time period that would have better served this story. For one thing, you could have a character taking pictures with black and white film, but digital cameras are undoubtedly more probable today. And you could have sent TJ to Iraq instead of Vietnam, but part of the reason the end of this book works as well as it does is because we can look at the past and learn from it.
The thing is, this is a book that’s easy to love. You love the people in it. I, for one, loved the character of Jamie. She felt true and real and interesting. She also carries her certainties with her on her sleeve. "I was six months away from turning thirteen and I thought I knew everything." Can’t say it any plainer than that (not to mention that it carries a whiff of To Kill a Mockingbird). Really, every character in this book (and there aren’t that many) appears with all three dimensions firmly intact. For example, Jamie describes Cindy Lorenzo, a girl who is somewhat learning disabled, as being "nervous and excitable and shaky around the edges. She hit and bit." Pitch perfect, that.
As for the writing itself, Dowell’s book is only 176 pages and she packs each one with interesting text. Chapter Two, for example, begins, "We were stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, a flat piece of real estate that threatened to burst into flames every afternoon from June through September." Or the first sentences of Chapter Four, "TJ’s first letter to me wasn’t a letter at all. It was a roll of film." You can see that Dowell includes equal parts interest and good writing, and the effect is tight. This is a book that doesn’t mince words. It gets right to the point every time and doesn’t sacrifice anything in the process. Rare? You don’t know the half of it. The writing and the editing on this puppy must have been intense.
It’s hard to find fault here. I do know at least one person who thought it a little odd that the book didn’t concentrate more on the moon landing and how that would have affected the characters. The book is called Shooting the Moon after all. But Dowell covers her bases, having TJ speculate at times about "the idea that there are human footprints on the moon’s surface." Classrooms of children will someday be asked what the moon signifies to TJ and to Jamie. I can already see it. My questions and concerns about the book were a little more basic. I would have liked a little more background on the Colonel’s past. Did he serve in WWII or Korea? Does he know what real combat is like? Does this inform what he feels about his own son enlisting? And maybe an explanation of where Jamie is getting all this photographic paper and chemicals for developing her brother’s pictures would have been nice. I assume that the army provided all this free of charge in their rec center but we don’t know it for a fact.
Otherwise it’s as fine a book as you could hope for. With its magnificent backing and forthing within the story’s timeline, its spot on characterization, its plot, writing, and general kid-friendly text (always important and seldom recognized) Frances O’Roark Dowell has more than just a winner here. She has a classic. 2008 required reading for any and for all.
First Line: “The day after my brother left for Vietnam, me and Private Hollister played thirty-seven hands of gin rummy, and I won twenty-one.”
Notes on the Cover: Well, it’s not quite a girl torso shot but it’s pretty close. The photograph of the moon with the title at the bottom is a good idea. I guess my main concern would normally be whether or not this cover is historically accurate, being that the story takes place during the Vietnam War. We’re dealing with a tomboy in this story, so the jeans work, as does the plain white shirt. Of course, I wasn’t alive during Vietnam, so if any of you find this weird lemme know. The only color comes from the title, which works, and the muted colors hint at the black and white photographs that Jamie is processing. All in all, it’s not a bad image, but I can’t call it one of my favorites. At least they left room under the title for the shiny awards it’ll receive a year from now. That relieves my mind some.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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