Defend or Die

I don’t know what I expected here, but even if I had bothered myself to read the back cover I’m not sure it would have helped me. This is a book about a prison camp! Prison camp! And oh my god, so gory. It’s good, don’t worry, but…maybe don’t read this around a mealtime.

Defend Or Die: The Siege of Hong Kong, Jack Finnigan, Hong Kong, 1941¸Gillian Chan, 2015.

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I need to stop thinking that the I Am Canada books are all boring, because this was a lot of things, but boring is not on that list. Gripping, yes. Disgusting, yes (in places). Gory, oh my lands, yes. Incredibly sad, yes. But boring, not so much. I mean, you’d probably get more out of this book if you had a passing familiarity with the role Hong Kong played during the Second World War, but hey, even if you don’t, still good!

If you happen to have a 12-year-old boy handy who’s a reluctant reader but easily lured by some gory war stories, this is the book you’ll want to give him. As I mentioned, not a great idea if you have a weak stomach, or you just don’t want to read about lots and lots and lots of violence. And death. And violent death. This is going to be your only warning.

This is one of those books telling one story broken up into two chunks—current, and how we got here. Jack is in a prison camp on Hong Kong Island by January of 1942, and they’re already being starved and forced to go out on work parties and generally miserable. Then we flash back to October of the previous year when Jack is shipping out from his home in Toronto after finishing his basic training. And apparently there’s some bad blood there between him and his girlfriend’s family. I’m sensing a star-crossed-lovers type thing, since his girlfriend Alice is apparently a very sweet girl and Jack beat up her brother at one point. But Alice comes to see him off on the train, but Jack’s brother stops her, and they don’t get to say goodbye to each other after all. This is literally the most cheerful thing that happens in the entire book, so if you want to back out now, this is your warning.

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Sink and Destroy

I thought this book was going to suck and I was proven horribly, amazingly wrong. Is this going to make me less of a snob about these books? It should!

Sink And Destroy: The Battle of the Atlantic, Bill O’Connell, North Atlantic, 1940, Edward Kay, 2014.

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I’m the worst. This is the second I Am Canada book I have read, and I thought they were going to be awful, but I’ve been very favourably impressed by both of them. I should get my act together and read the rest of them now! I will, when I get there, it’s just that I’m so horribly bored by most of the topics that it takes me forever to even crack one open. Anyway, this one is great. But full disclosure, I wrote most of this review while watching Das Boot, because it reminded me how much I liked it, and also because I used to love that movie. That was my favourite movie! What was wrong with me? What 20-year-old girl’s favourite movie is Das Boot? This does not say anything good about my psyche, I’m sure.

Another full disclosure: the first good chunk of this book is pretty dull. It does take a while to get going. There’s this whole boring segment where Billy is fishing away, which is how you know some bad shit is going to go down. Whenever there’s an idyllic family fishing scene you just know people are going to die or have something brutal happen. Anyway, Bill is a poor kid from Iroquois, which is right on the St. Lawrence River, who has two older brothers, a younger brother, and a younger sibling. He works on a merchant ship as a teenager, and there’s several boring pages that more or less just recap the war. Invasions, bombings, blah blah blah. Things finally get going when Bill enlists in the navy, much to his parents’ dismay, and we’re finally off!

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Blazing West

I always complain that these books about boys are boring and dull, but this one was not. Probably because it’s a Kathryn Lasky book, so it’s going to be a good bit above the general run, but I was still genuinely surprised! Incidentally, this book was rereleased with a new title and cover, and you tell me which one is more engaging.

The Journal of Augustus Pelletier, The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804, Kathryn Lasky, 2000.

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So, here you go. The initial title looks exactly like every other single My Name Is America book, which is not super thrilling, but the reissue is…it’s a little bit pulp-fiction-y, isn’t it? I’m not an 11-year-old boy so I’m probably not the target audience here, but am I wrong? The expressions on everyone’s faces here are hilarious—grinding fury, complete irritation, and what looks like the guy in the back who may have just heard the world’s most hilarious joke. I don’t know what’s happening here.

Gus here, our teenage protagonist, is preparing to secretly follow the Lewis and Clark expedition in search of a little adventure, and his brilliant plan is to wait until they’re too far along to tell him he has to go back. As stupid of an idea as that is, and believe me it is truly dumb, it is definitely something a teenage boy would come up with. He’s half French and half Omaha, calls himself a half-breed, and speaks French, Omaha, and English, which as you imagine might come in handy. He immediately begins complaining about how slow the whole expedition is going, which is not surprising considering that they’re a good bit more clunky than a single teenage boy and his knapsack.

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The Journal of Otto Peltonen

I’ve been deliberately skipping the My Name is America books because I think they’re boring, but here’s one that’s pretty interesting (written by the same guy who wrote Sean Sullivan, which could win awards for being boring).

The Journal of Otto Peltonen: A Finnish Immigrant, Hibbings, Minnesota, 1905, William Durbin, 2000.

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Why don’t the MNIA books get clever titles? It’s so dull. They relaunched the series in 2012 and did give them titles, which is cool, but this one was not chosen for reissue and hence didn’t get a new title. My copy does have a fold-out section at the back with a cross-section map of an iron mine, which is pretty cool, though. Interestingly, the books across all the series tend to have a strong pro-union bias, which pops up in this book (as we shall see) as well as the newsie diary set in 1899, the Dear America novel Hear My Sorrow about shirtwaist workers, A Coal Miner’s Bride (again with the mining!), and to a lesser extent in Days of Toil and Tears (Dear Canada).

The other thing that tends to be a bit less engaging about the MNIA (and I Am Canada, etc.,) is that they need to be focused on older boys in order to effectively be a part of the story (generally: war, or work, and it’s a real stretch to get an 11-year-old protagonist involved in a war that’s not on the home front). But that is frustrating in itself—the books are targeted at younger boys, but the protagonists are older, which isn’t strange, but it ends up reading as a strange mishmash between the two ages. Eventually I am going to get around to reviewing I Am Canada, which suffers from a lot of the same issues, but in the meantime I will just say that if you’re going to write series about girls where they experience the war at home, you can do that with boys, too. Plenty of young teenage and preteen boys experienced wars and social upheaval at home, without having to go Be In It! That’s a valid plot for a book, too! But the only MNIA that really covers this is one where there’s a kid who’s a witness to the Battle of Fredericksburg, and they already had a journal about a Civil War soldier anyhow.

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The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty

Last week I covered one of two companion books on the Vietnam War—this week is the male counterpart. I have Thoughts.

The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty, United States Marine Corp, Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1968, Ellen Emerson White, 2002.

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Last week’s Dear America novel, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?is a pretty straight-up diary-style exploration of what it’s like to be a teenager in America in 1968 and having a brother fighting in Vietnam. This one, by necessity, is much more tightly focused and includes boatloads more detail on the war experience. Now, I complain a lot about novels where I feel an author of the same racial background or experience would have brought a better understanding to the book (see Barry Denenberg’s book in the same series on the Japanese interment, or the backlash against Ann Rinaldi’s Dear America book on residential schools compared with the great interest about Ruby Slipperjack’s upcoming Dear Canada novel on residential schools)—but I don’t always feel the same way about men writing about girls or women on boys. Some can be great! Some can be mediocre at best. Does that mean that Ellen Emerson White did a bad job of writing a novel about an eighteen-year-old man?

No, it doesn’t. It’s a good book. It’s an interesting book and the fact that both novels were written by the same author lends it a nice air of similar tone that I think helps the story along. I think the major flaw in it, which is that it doesn’t totally read like something an 18-year-old would write, is more the result of White’s intended audience (boys aged 12-15 or so) not being ready for something written with the verisimilitude of an actual Marine. And that’s my main gripe, but if I’m willing to put that aside, which I am, it’s great. Because really, I’m reading this as a YA novel—if I wanted to read Chickenhawk I would do it, you know?

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The Journal of Ben Uchida

Boys again!

The Journal of Ben Uchida, Citizen 13559: Mirror Lake Internment Camp, California, 1942, Barry Denenberg, 1999.

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I trash on Barry Denenberg a lot because I don’t care for his characterizations of young female characters, and also because I tend to get frustrated with “old white man writes young women and characters of colour.” This falls into the latter category, and I wish so much that Scholastic had come up with an actual Japanese author—notably, Scholastic Canada’s similar book managed to do it with Torn Apart, The Diary of Mary Kobayashi, which is an internment diary about a Japanese-Canadian girl, and which actually is written by Susan Aihoshi, and is a significantly better book.

But enough about what I had wished this book could have been and let’s get on to what it actually is, which is one of the very few My Name is America books that I actually enjoyed and could probably be enjoyed by a twelve-year-old boy. Probably because it has a healthy dose of actual humorous entertainment value, unlike most of the other books, and unlike most of Barry Denenberg’s other books.

Ben Uchida is twelve years old, and in April of 1942 he and his family are getting ready to leave their home. They have no more stuff left, every last stick of it has been sold. A couple of weeks before Christmas in 1941, as everyone knows, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, scaring the crap out of America. That night his parents burn all of their Japanese things—the letters from their grandparents in Japan, their books, their records, their newspapers, their photo albums, his sister Naomi’s Japanese dolls, every last thing. But Ben’s parents won’t let him stay home from school, so he goes Monday morning to find that everyone is staring at him like he’s a freakshow.

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The Journal of Sean Sullivan

I haven’t done a book about a boy yet, and I happen to have this one out from the library, so let’s start with it.

Book: The Journal of Sean Sullivan, A Transcontinental Railroad Worker: Nebraska and Points West, 1867.

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Why did the My Name is America books not get decent titles? This book already sounds like it’s going to be more boring than fishing cat toys out from under the stove for the 33rd time today. My personal theory on the MNIA books is that they never took off not because boys don’t like to read, but boys don’t like to read boring books, and this one doesn’t even sound interesting.

Sean Sullivan is a teenager, and his father is taking him to work on the railroad for the very first time. Sean’s mother has died, so I’m assuming they don’t have any reason to stay in the East, and so Sean is very enthused to start earning a wage. On page nine he meets a prostitute in the street and gets scared, so maybe this book will shape up to be slightly more interesting than the cat toy thing.

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