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