Book Review: Dear America: When Christmas Comes Again, The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer (New York City to the Western Front, 1917) by Beth Seidel Levine

christmasagainSimone Spencer is DA’s oldest narrator at eighteen years old. Born to a fairly well-to-do family in New York City with an American father and French mother, Simone is bilingual in the English and French languages. After she graduates high school, Simone learns that all American men between the ages of 21 and 30 are being drafted for the Great War, which includes her married older brother, Will. Instead of waiting for the draft, Will enlists in the war and sails off to Europe. Wanting to be of use herself, for her country and her brother, Simone also enlists, utilizing her bilingual abilities to become a switchboard operator (or “hello girl”) on the Western front to help the French, English, and Americans communicate with each other.

This book gives a fascinating insight into the significantly important role these 450 switchboard girls played in the victory of World War I. If not for proper communication between the Allies, America may not have been able to win. (Sadly, it took nearly 60 years for the “hello girls,” as they were called, to gain any sort of national recognition, veteran status, or medals of honor, and at this point only 4% were still living.)

But “When Christmas Comes Again” is, at heart, a love story. While stationed in her mother’s hometown in France, Simone meets and falls in love with the strapping and dashing young soldier, Sam. As she writes: Sam “stops her world,” and it is “love at first sight”. Theirs develops into a touching and beautiful story, one of the best romances to be found so far in the series. Perhaps this book is meant for slightly older readers, as the age of the narrator suggests. But it is nonetheless a clean, educational, and endearing yet heart-wrenching read. A good addition to the series, and my only pity is that it is themed as a “Christmas” book when Christmas truly had little to do with it, and it could have been presented and promoted as so much more.

Book Review: Dear America: Survival in the Storm, The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards (Dalhart, Texas 1935) by Katelan Janke

survivalThis is a wonderful DA diary taking place during the Great Depression in the Texas Panhandle. At this time, those who lived in the prairies were hit for several years by terrible drought and dust storms (caused by farmers’ improper treatment of topsoil coupled with strong winds and a severe drought) that nearly ruined the land and peoples’ homes and ways of life. Grace, our 12 year old narrator, is a mature and hardworking young girl who, with her scatterbrained and imaginative 7 year old sister Ruth, make for memorable characters.

I had never heard of the “Dust Bowl” before reading this book, and I certainly learned a lot. In the end, I was positively floored that this book was written by a fifteen year old. Katelan Janke had won a “write your own Dear America novel” contest. Once again, I was floored, as this is one of the better-written books in the series. A great read.

Book Review: Dear America: Where Have All the Flowers Gone? The Diary of Molly MacKenzie Flaherty (Boston, Massachusetts 1968) by Ellen Emerson White

flowersThis is the story of the all-Irish-American Flaherty family in the 1960s. Molly is that girl in school who is outgoing and popular, her brother is the handsome jock whom everyone adores, her dad is a fiery Irish-bred firefighter, and her mother is a devout Catholic. But Molly is torn about her opinions regarding the Vietnam War… on the one hand, Molly is a free-thinker, which often lands her in the principal’s office at school, but on the other hand, her beloved brother, Patrick, is serving in the war overseas, and she does not wish to believe he is doing anything wrong by defending their country. Their mother finds peace in her religion, going to daily Mass and inviting their priest over for dinner, which I thought was interesting and could’ve been explored more, but Molly is quick to be doubtful and vague about her religious feelings and beliefs. Molly begins to volunteer, visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital, and she also stands up to her racist uncle in one scene, as she respects the Civil Rights Movement. This book explores both complex sides of the Vietnam War well.

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.