Book Review: Dear America: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, The Diary of Bess Brennan (Perkins School for the Blind, 1932) by Barry Denenberg

mirrorBess has an accident and must learn how to live her life anew now that she has gone blind. She attends the Perkins School for the Blind where she interacts with teachers and other blind students who become her friends. When she visits home, she must learn to adjust and to feel like a part of her family again. The author could have written so much more about this fascinating subject, but missed his opportunity in favor of a more simplistic book with a vague ending.

Book Review: Dear America: Early Sunday Morning, The Pearl Harbor Diary of Amber Billows (Hawaii, 1941) by Barry Denenberg

earlysundayIt is 1941, and just as Amber Billows and her family are beginning to adjust to their new life in Washington, D.C. (after having moved between multiple other cities), Amber’s father, a quirky Harvard-educated reporter, announces that they are moving yet again, this time to the virtually unheard of U.S. territory of Hawaii. Amber is quick to be upset, but is also quick to adjust to her new life in fair-weathered, lovely Hawaii, especially as she makes friends with pretty and popular Kame, a Japanese-American girl from school. Life is quite ordinary, until the fateful morning when Amber is awoken by a deafening, high-pitched droning sound and her panicked mother calling her out of bed. From that moment on, everything changes in Hawaii, from citizens having to build bomb shelters and carry around gas masks, to waiting in hours-long lines for groceries, medical treatment, and gasoline. Worse, however, are the tragic deaths and wounded sufferings of the soldiers who were stationed at Pearl Harbor, as Amber learns while assisting her mother, a nurse, in treating these men at the hospital.

This is a very short book, and like all of Barry Denenberg’s books in this series, seems to end right in the middle of the story, and even the epilogue doesn’t tie up many of the loose ends. However, this is the best book by Denenberg that I have read so far. I enjoyed Amber’s uniquely flawed personality, the original personalities and relationship of her parents, and even the brief interactions between Amber, Kame, and Kame’s aunt. I did find it odd that Amber was so notoriously bad at writing and responding to her friends’ letters and found all sorts of ways to avoid it, yet wrote extremely detailed and long-winded diary entries. (Though perhaps this was Denenberg’s way of demonstrating Amber’s reluctance of closeness with others, as was frequently demonstrated in this narrative.) A surprisingly enjoyable book, and the December 7 entry is powerful and terrifying. The Historical Note is also extremely well-put and I actually learned more about why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor than I previously understood.

Book Review: Dear America: One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping, The Diary of Julie Weiss (Vienna, Austria to New York, 1938) by Barry Denenberg

oneyeThis book is most unlike the other books in the series. As it begins, Julie is a privileged, well-to-do Jewish girl in Vienna, the daughter of a successful doctor, when Hitler annexes Austria and her world is turned upside-down. After witnessing the heinous atrocities committed by the Nazis upon their Jewish neighbors, Julie’s father sends her overseas for her safety, to live with her estranged aunt and uncle in New York City. While Julie starts out as a rather snobbish girl, boasting of her own intelligence and concerned about trivial matters, the reader, knowing where history is headed, expects a major transformation once the girl loses her luxurious lifestyle and witnesses the terrors of the Nazis. But the expected transformation does not exactly occur; instead, Julie goes from being snobby, verbose and unlikable, to completely depressed and withdrawn.

What pained me about this story most were its many blunt adult references that I found to be most uncharacteristic of the DA series, including Julie watching her maid take a bath and remarking upon her large “bosoms” floating, a boy looking up Julie’s skirt, swear words, the suicide of a main character, teen pregnancies, and babies out of wedlock, Julie’s blunt denial of belief in God and ceasing to capitalize the word ‘God’, and learning the American term “make whoopee.” While this is relatively light stuff to most adults, it was off-putting to find in a DA book, especially since these references were unnecessary for recounting the history or advancing the plot. As well, we never do find out the answers to so many mysteries the author had set up, nor even do we find out why the book is called “One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping,” as the phrase is never mentioned anywhere. I was also disappointed that this book recycled a theme from Dreams in the Golden Country, where the narrator – ironically, also a Jewish immigrant in New York City – takes to the stage and finds her passion in acting.

To say something good about this book, it was very readable and still difficult to set down. Perhaps on its own, outside of the DA series, it’s a solid YA WWII read.

Book Review: Dear America: So Far From Home, The Diary of Mary Driscoll, An Irish Mill Girl (Lowell, Massachusetts 1847) by Barry Denenberg

sofarMary travels from Ireland to the U.S. to work in a mill so that she can earn money to send to her family at home. This book is very rich with imagery; it is very easy for one to picture the craggy shores of Ireland and the bustling streets of Lowell, MA while reading. In the States, Mary finds her sister, who is now a wealthy woman’s personal maid and wants nothing to do with Mary. Mary then gets a job at a mill where women are forced to work day and night under unfair and very dangerous conditions. (In once gruesome scene, a woman’s hair gets caught in one of the machines… you can imagine the rest.) She makes friends and enemies, tries her best to keep her integrity, and does her best in the workplace. The book ends, however, unexpectedly with no warning or closure. The ensuing epilogue is also…a bit of a letdown. A good book in the series, though not the best.