“There are always scary things happening in the world. There are always wonderful things happening. And it's up to you to decide how you're going to approach the world...how you're going to live in it, and what you're going to do."—Jo Ellen Chapman, Countdown”
Sorry I've been a little lax, folks - we are moving! The house is completely torn apart, and we are living out of two residences at the moment. Kinda crazy at home, and when the new basement flooded last week, that pretty much took priority over everything. Including this blog. But I'm back on this week, and I have a new book to share!
Every generation has those moments from their childhood which seem to stand still because of the gravity of what was going on in the world. Kennedy's assassination, the Berlin Wall coming down, the Challenger explosion - these are all moments in time that seem to freeze everything and spill over into our lives in frightening ways that are hard for a child to understand. Parents would love to shield their children from these moments, but they are so huge that no one can hide from them.
For me, the first time I remember really feeling that way was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 I was in 7th grade, and I remember coming home from school that day, the world being all about me and my 13 year old drama, and flopping down on the couch complaining to Mom about this kid and that teacher and how the world was just so unfair. Mom nodded and made all the right murmurs, but she wasn't paying a lot of attention. When I got to the end of my rant, I said "so what did you do today?" And Mom pointed at the TV screen and said, "just watching this, really." I turned around to see the Alfred P. Murrah building blown half off, bloodied faces being interviewed, and a massive manhunt for the men they believed to be responsible. I watched for hours that night as the search for survivors continued. I remember seeing the toll number on screen for kids in Oklahoma City to call if their parents hadn't made it home yet. For the first time, I felt unsafe in the world. This was an evil that couldn't be made ok with a hugs and kisses from Mom and Dad. Something had changed in the world, and my little teenage universe was no longer about me, but about things far beyond my grasp and control.
Countdown by Deborah Wiles is a new kind of novel about another such time in 20th century American history - the Cuban Missile Crisis. It follows the story of Franny, an eleven year old girl growing up in the shadow of the Cold War in the 1960s. Franny, her mother, Air Force pilot father, older sister Jo Ellen, younger brother Drew, and World War I veteran uncle live near Andrews Air Force Base in the era of the Kennedys, duck and cover, rock and roll music, and the civil rights movement of the sixties. Like most eleven year old girls, Franny's world is very much about her own trials and tribulations, such as her best friend suddenly turning on her and a cute boy moving in across the street. Her parents don't seem to see her or understand her, and nothing feels quite right or fair. She knows about the nuclear threat from Russia, and she thinks if she can just get a letter to Chairman Khrushchev and explain things, she could put an end to the growing fear that has become a part of their everyday life. Right in the midst of all this pre-teen angst, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 develops, and life in Camp Springs, Maryland seems to come to a standstill as the world holds its breath, waiting to see if they will wake up tomorrow to a nuclear holocaust. Franny has to find her way in the world and begin to come to terms with how scary life can be but, in contrast, how much having your family around you to love and be loved by can make a difference in deciding how, as her sister Jo Ellen puts it, she is going to approach the world.
First, the historical perspective. I love historical novels, and this is no exception. However, this novel add a new dynamic to the classic historical novel. It is what the author calls a "documentary novel." Throughout the book, interspersed through the pages, are slices of life from 1960s America. Pieces of speeches by presidents and civil right movement leaders are printed in large print. Song lyrics are randomly interwoven with Cold War propaganda posters. Occasionally there is a biographical mini report on someone who shaped that era, such as President and Mrs. Kennedy. Throughout the narrative, there seems to be a soundtrack of a civil defense filmstrip, telling kids what to do in case of a nuclear attack. (Because, after all, a nuclear blast can destroy everything within hundreds of miles, but if you duck and cover your head you should be fine, right?) It's as if this soundtrack is playing in the back of Franny's mind all day, all the time, no matter what is going on around her. As the threat of the Missile Crisis grows, so does the intensity of this soundtrack of her mind.
The book's narrative is also written in present tense, which is absolutely perfect for this character and what's going on around her. Eleven year olds hardly think about the past, and they certainly don't think too much about the future. Everything is very in the NOW with them. What's more, the pressure of the Missile Crisis had everyone living moment by moment. America literally did not know what was going to happen next. At any moment, bombs could start falling from the sky. It was a very "clear and present danger" kind of time. The present tense illustrates that tension beautifully.
The book is well written and manages to capture both the struggles of Franny in her life and the struggles of the global crisis around her, balancing between the two and even drawing parallels. Her relationship with her best-friend-turned-enemy, Margie Gardener, heats up in the exact timing of the Missile Crisis, and the reader sees two people who just can't seem to communicate well at the same time they see two countries that couldn't manage to get their relationship happy either. October 27, 1962, the Crisis reached a climax when Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down and killed over Cuba. This is day Wiles chose for Franny to have her climactic moment in the book, her damaged friendship with Margie coming to a head, with dramatic and tragic results. The two crises are felt keenly by the reader, and as a result, you wind up in the head and heart of Franny as she struggles to sort it all out and find her place in her family, neighborhood, and world.
In the end, it's a book about love, family, friendship, and choosing how you will enter the world. It's a book about the personal struggles we face every day as well as the global threats around us that affect us more than we know. It takes us back to a time and place where childhood was idyllic and terrifying all at the same time. It captures the mood of a nation and the mood of a little girl in 20th century America, just trying to be seen and understood by those around her.
It's a delightful book. I enjoyed both as an adult reader and as a teacher looking for books to recommend to young readers. This would be a great book to recommend to readers about 5th grade and up. Wiles has two other companion novels coming about life in the 1960s, and I can't wait to read those as well and she where she takes some of these characters. This is a great series either for teaching history or just for reading for enjoyment. Check it out and travel back to experience life in the 1960s - you won't regret the trip.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Top 5 TBR:
1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
2. Shooting Victoria by Paul Thomas Murphy
3. A Prophetic Calendar by Jill Shannon
4. Forgotten God by Francis Chan
5. The Lightening Thief by Rick Riordian