Kat is a fourteen-year-old girl living in Washington, D.C. in the year of the picket lines for women’s suffrage. While Kat’s father, a doctor, is more progressive and generally accepting of Kat’s mother’s picketing and women’s rights activism, Kat’s Uncle Bayard is a harsh tyrant to his own wife (also a suffragette) and family, and is quite unsympathetic to the cause. Eventually, Kat’s dear cousin and best friend Alma runs away from the hostile environment of her family and flees to England to assist as a nurse’s assistant in the Great War. To make matters worse, the peaceful picketers go from being heckled and treated unfairly to being assaulted, injured, arrested, and imprisoned, right in front of the White House, all while President Wilson turned a blind eye, as he was more occupied with the Great War instead of half of the American population– women– on the homefront. It is shocking to read this book and realize how much has changed in less than 100 years as I write this now. It is appalling the way the suffragettes were brutally and unjustly mistreated and denied their basic rights in our country, including freedom of speech and the right for peaceful demonstration.
This book was well-written in the way that, despite all of the historical events, we get a strong feel for Kat’s character, her otherwise ordinary life and schooling, her hobbies, and her– at times juvenile, yet understandable– fears and concerns. This book is also just as much a book about women’s suffrage as it is about World War I, which I quite appreciated in its historical accuracy. Very apropos for me to have read it when I did (Sept. 2011), for at this time women were just granted the right to vote in Saudi Arabia.
It 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.