My Secret War

Well, this book puts me in a not-before-experienced situation. What if I just hated a book not because it was badly written or horrifically racist or dumb, but just because every single thing about the stupid book grated on my very last nerve?

My Secret War: The World War Two Diary of Madeline Beck, Long Island, New York, 1941, Mary Pope Osborne, 2009.

maddie beck

I will fully admit that this book is not bad. It is not bad in any way! For whatever reason, I find it infinitely annoying, and part of that is probably because the protagonist is too realistic. She’s a very realistic 13-year-old girl, and there’s a reason 13-year-old girls aren’t the centre of many non-YA novels—they can be irritating as hell. I can say that because I used to be one.

Madeline lives with her mother in a boarding house on Long Island, while her father serves on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Pacific. As a career Navy officer, he’s moved the family around a lot, but Madeline DOES NOT enjoy this new place—she thinks the girls are stuck-up and nobody seems to be interested in her. Now, I find it odd that out of the absolute wealth of stories about World War Two, Dear America’s two have a very similar premise—girl with military father moves them to new place, Pearl Harbor happens, chaos ensues. I suppose you could argue that One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping was a war novel as well, but it ends well before 1939, let alone Pearl Harbour, so that’s a bit weak. But there are just so, so, SO many interesting stories that I’m disappointed that these two are basically the same one.

Maddie thinks the other residents of the house are “strange”—the nearly-deaf landlady and her 20-year-old son Theo, who limps; 19-year-old Clara Rosenthal and her mother, who are Jewish refugees from Germany; and Miss Burke, whose only fault seems to be that she’s a boring schoolteacher. Maddie complains a fair amount about the mean girls at school and their stupid club, how she wants a wide white belt for Christmas to make her look slim, the other weirdos who live in their house, and how she’s sick of moving around so much—which is all 100% realistic for a 13-year-old, but aggravating to read!

Part of the reason the book bugs me so much is due to the (period-appropriate) slang sprinkled in with, let us say, a heavy hand. There’s an awful lot of “Doggone it,” “Golly,” “swell,” and “jeepers.” In fact, “jeepers” turns up three or four times in the first dozen pages, which seems a tiny bit over-the-top. Also dispiriting to me is the fact that a six-year-old character uses the catchphrase “holy smokes!” which I myself use, and I prefer not to be characterized with a 6-year-old boy in 1941.

Anyway, I digress, because Maddie is busy developing a crush on Johnny Vecchio, the cutest boy in eighth grade, who invites her over to look at his war map after Maddie tells the class a little bit about the point of submarine warfare. Maxine Stone, the most popular girl in school, also has a crush on Johnny Vecchio, so she starts freezing Maddie out, making here even less popular at school. So instead Maddie hangs around at home, trying to befriend Clara and learning that the Rosenthals are Jewish. Maddie keeps trying to lure Johnny away by talking about her dad and the war, and it’s so, so cringeworthy to read because it’s SO REALISTIC. (I think this is my actual problem with the book.)

In December Pearl Harbor is attacked, which sends Maddie and her mother into an absolute panic until they learn that no aircraft carriers were there. Shortly afterward with the declarations of war from Italy and Germany, Maddie realizes that she won’t be the only girl she knows with a servicemember for a father for very long. But she also enjoys some of the attention she’s getting from Johnny and the rest of the class, because she’s 13.

Maddie and her mom send a Christmas package to her dad, and get a letter from him saying he is not in harm’s way, which they choose to believe, because of course they do. So things seem to be going OK, until Maddie sees that Maxine and Johnny are going to the Christmas dance together, bolts home, has a crying fit, and then complains to her mom that life isn’t fair and they have an argument. Wow, 13 was a rough year. It’s very unfortunately realistic for those of us who had that exact fight with our mothers. When Maddie complains to Clara, Clara tells her she knows how she feels, because when she was twelve, she was barred from going to school in Germany because she was Jewish, and everyone made fun of her. This shuts Maddie up, as you can imagine, and she reflects that she’s actually pretty damn lucky.

While on Christmas vacation, Maddie tags along with Clara and Theo (who are officially together) to the five-and-dime, because she’s bored out of her mind and has no friends. But they run into Johnny and his family, and while they’re chatting, Clara interrupts Maddie to tell her she’s going to be late for her date, and Maddie runs off with this conveniently-making-her-look-good excuse, which I must say is a particularly good bit of craftsmanship by Clara. Maddie spends the rest of Christmas vacation being grandiloquent in the way that only emotional teenagers can be—wishing she could have a “rendezvous with destiny,” making a New Year’s resolution to be a “friend to persecuted peoples,” and so on. As you do, of course. Well, as 13-year-olds do, at least.

When school starts again, Johnny asks (politely) why she’s being so crabby with him, and Maddie is all “well, did you ENJOY your DATE with THAT GIRL?” and Johnny’s like….no, I was just going because I had to because our parents know each other. And then, easy peasy, they’re friends again and life is good and they’re obsessing about the U-boats spotted off Long Island. They go out “submarine spotting” on the beach one afternoon and spot something shiny and black, and Maddie immediately freaks the hell out and goes to tell Theo, who’s like “That was probably a whale, dumbass.” Except more nicely, because he’s a decent person instead of a misanthropic blogger.

Theo mentions to them that the Coast Guard picked up a German radio transmission not far away, and Maddie and Johnny decide to start a submarine-watch group of their own and pass notes in a hollow tree. It’s very twee. Clara teases Maddie a little bit about her “boyfriend,” but Maddie is all indignantly “We are JUST BEST PALS” to which Clara rolls her eyes, because duh. She couldn’t more obviously have a crush on Johnny Vecchio if it was in mile-high flaming letters. Anyway, she’s very jealous of Theo getting to join the Civil Defense Force, and comes up with a plan to start a kids’ war effort club along with Johnny. Then Johnny asks her to be his valentine, because it’s February, and that’s what you do with your “best pal.” Except not.

The idea of the kids’ club is really well-received at the school, and they have plans to collect books for servicemen and selling War Bonds and what have you. Maddie suddenly finds herself to be Popular, which she is unfamiliar with, but still gets a huge kick out of. They do pretty well, and things are going very well for the club until Maddie gets the bright idea to ask Clara to give a talk on Hitler’s Germany to the other kids, and Clara very nicely tells her she can’t do it, and Maddie feels about two inches tall.

So sue me—the plot of this book is “13-year-old girl puts foot in mouth and lives in her imagination,” and I dislike it because it’s too realistic.

Really I just can’t be bothered to recap the parts where Maddie is swooning because Johnny touched her cheek or whatever. She worries because they haven’t heard from her dad in a while, and the Civil Defense Force drills and blackouts scare her, and because her mom gets a job as a welder in a defense plant outside of town. There’s actually a very good little bit of prose where Maddie notes “I guess…For most people, the war comes down to one special serviceman you desperately love. A father, a brother, a son.”

By May they finally receive a letter from Maddie’s dad, saying that he’s bored but playing a lot of cards, which relieves them a bit. It shouldn’t, because the very first thing you learn in Military Dependent School (not a real thing) is that your servicemember is always going to tell you they’re fine and bored, even when they’re in the middle of a war zone, so take it with a grain of salt. They go merrily along, until THE TELEGRAM COMES.

This is a war book, of course there’s a telegram. Maddie’s dad was critically injured during a battle, and Maddie loses her shit and can’t stop shaking and crying for one second, so the other boarders put her to bed until her mom gets home. She doesn’t go to school, just stays home fretting and worrying and feeling horribly guilty for bragging about her dad. When her mom finally makes her go back, she’s angry at Johnny for acting like the war is so fun and exciting (even though she felt exactly that way a week ago) and gives up on her club. Theo tries to comfort her by telling her about Clara—about how when her father died, Clara’s mother lost her reason and Clara got them over to America to live with an uncle, and when the uncle died Clara was the one to make their way to the boardinghouse. But all Maddie can do is think about how she’s not nearly that brave.

For weeks they hear nothing, and Maddie just mopes around the house and doesn’t do anything. One night she finds herself walking on the beach after dark, even though it’s strictly forbidden, just for something to do with herself. She goes again a couple more times, and then one night she gets caught. By a couple of men wearing all black, who tell her they’re the Coast Guard, and say if she tells anyone her parents will be very sad. And the next day when she’s sitting on the porch a dark car drives by the house very slowly with a man inside, staring at her. Maddie is freaking out, thinking she’s in trouble, and creepy people keep turning up—a guy in a fedora comes by the house and gawks at it, and a different tall, thin man comes by the house walking a dog, and says to Maddie that it’s a nice night to be out enjoying the air and not IN PRISON.

Maddie does not tell anyone about this because she’s petrified, even if as an adult every bone in your body is saying TELL SOMEONE, CHILD. But she doesn’t, until a truck runs her off the road on her bicycle when she decides she has to tell Johnny. Why???? Why not tell YOUR MOTHER or AN AUTHORITY FIGURE, not your little boyfriend? (13-year-olds.) Johnny agrees that she’s right to be freaked out, but that it might be German saboteurs! While scrabbling around on the beach looking for evidence, they find A PACK OF GERMAN CIGARETTES and a bunch of clothing includes hats with swastikas on them and a bunch of glass tubes and powder! They totally panic (in fairness, I’m 27 years old and I would freak right out if I found evidence of sabotage basically in my backyard).

Maddie decides to tell Theo, who very matter-of-factly tells her to just call the freaking FBI already. Maddie has the wind taken out of her sails at this, but calls the FBI from a pay phone and tells them everything. And just a couple of days after that, Maddie’s mom gets a letter from her dad—he’s in hospital in Hawaii, recovering from burns, having a nurse write for him. They all go insane with joy, write him a zillion letters and send him packages, and then Johnny comes by with the paper and there’s a headline about NAZI SABOTEURS DISCOVERED IN LONG ISLAND. When Maddie reads the part where an “anonymous tipster” led the FBI to the Nazi hideout, she faints. The news comes out in the papers and Maddie and Johnny commiserate about how weird it feels to not be able to tell anyone that they’ve Changed The Course Of History.

They finally hear from Maddie’s dad again, who is recovering slowly from his burns, but he’s being sent to San Francisco to recover fully, and Maddie and her mom are going to join him there. So they pack everything up and get ready to leave within a couple of days—Maddie cries at the thought of leaving the other boarders and Johnny, but they’re off again that weekend.

In the epilogue, we learn that Theo and Clara get married, and Maddie and Johnny get married after college and move to Washington, D.C.

Rating: C+.  This book irks me. It just does. For starters, as I mentioned before it bothers me that it has basically the same plot as the other WWII book, but with a slightly more sympathetic protagonist. Maddie is realistic to a fault which is great, but irritating, because 13-year-olds can be pretty irritating human beings. It’s cheesy (“jeepers!”) and swings back and forth between cheese and nice bits of prose about how terrifying war can be. But a few nice phrases can’t resurrect it for me totally.


4 thoughts on “My Secret War

  1. I feel like this is the first book you’ve reviewed that didn’t end with “the supporting characters had a trillion kids; the protagonist DIED ALONE.”


  2. My main takeaway from this is that my goal as a teacher is to be like Clara.

    “I get how you feel,” says Clara. “My experience with those feelings was actually super traumatic and history-shaking, and I do want to gently and subtly remind you that the events we’re discussing in your life aren’t quite so pervasive as those affecting some people you may one day have an opportunity to help, but I do get that you’re having some legitimate drama and depression, and girlfriend, I feel ya. Let me pitch in some wingman services with that boy and see if it helps.”


    • I love this so much. Clara is (as many supporting characters) a more interesting character in her own right than the protagonist, but she’s a great foil for kids who are learning that their lives maybe aren’t so heartbreakingly awful as they may seem.


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