Ali’s Bees By Bruce Olav Solheim

Bruce Solheim is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California.  He served six years in the U.S. Army as a jail guard and as a helicopter pilot. He founded the Veterans Program at Citrus College, and teaches Vietnam War-related history classes.

The three kids in Solheim’s children’s book, Ali’s Bees (CreateSpace, 142 pp., $9.89, paper; $2.99, Kindle)—Ali, Lupe and Jenks— learn how to cooperate on a science project. Ali wishes he could feel at home in Los Angeles with his beekeeper grandfather with whom he went to live after his parents were killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq.

Ali has PTSD related to that terrorist attack he survived, but his family did not, except for his grandfather. His grandfather has Ali work with bees as therapy for his PTSD. Ali works with Lupe, a classroom friend, and with Jenks, a bully. Jenks has problems of his own as his father is confined to a wheelchair because of wartime injuries. The horrors of war live on every page of this book.

Some of the five illustrations by Gabby Untermayerova of Jenks’ father in his wheelchair brought tears to my eyes. Full disclosure: Often these days I am in a wheelchair, too.

This book can entertain and benefit all ages of readers. It can also teach how to try to overcome the ill-effects of war, effects that are with us always and everywhere.

The book is positive and healing, but it is also realistic. It never becomes maudlin or descends into didacticism. It is beautifully written and on some pages borders on poetry.

Bruce Solheim

I loved the book and would use it in class if I were still teaching about the horrors of war.

Thanks to Bruce Solheim and Gabby Untermayerova for conspiring to produce this fine book dealing with the impact of war on the human heart.

—David Willson

 

Advertisements

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

51fn8usx0rl

Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the American war.  She now lives in Kansas with her family.  Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 277 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $7.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is written in free verse.  This children’s book—a bestseller that won the National Book Award when it come out in 2011— tells the story of Ha and her family’s journey from Saigon to America.

Thanhha Lai decided to use poetry to tell her story rather than a novel or short stories. It starts in Saigon in 1975,  the Year of the Cat. The reader gets a poem dated February 11, Tet, in which everyone eats sugary cakes and wears new clothes. It is a time for starting over.

The next poem is dated February 12, and the reader realizes the book is written as a journal in poetry.  At the end of the book we are on January 31, Tet, once again. In between, we get a year of Thanhha Lai’s life, her journey, and that of her family.

a1fneev4x7l-_sy200_

Thanhha Lai

 

Here’s a brief sample from “Life in Waiting,” one of the poems that offers a taste of the author’s voice and great talent.

A routine starts/as soon as we settle/into our tent.

Camp workers/teach us English/mornings and afternoons.

Evenings we have to ourselves.

We watch movies outdoors/with images projected/onto a  white sheet.

Brother Quang translates/into a microphone,/his voice sad and slow.

If it’s a young cowboy/like Clint Eastwood,/everyone cheers.

If it’s an old cowboy,/like John Wayne,/most of us boo/and go swimming.

The Disney cartoons/lure out the girls,/who always surround/Brother Vu,

begging him to break/yet another piece of wood.

I can still hear them begging/when I go sit with Brother Khoi,

who rarely speaks anymore/but I’m happy to be near him.         

This is a fine book, both sad and funny–and not just for children.  Read it.  The Vietnamese point of view is elusive and seldom appreciated.

—David Willson

The Way to Stay in Destiny by Augusta Scattergood

51k4ydp5pwl-_sx342_bo1204203200_

Augusta Scattergood is a children’s book author and reviewer and a former librarian. Her 2012 book Glory Be was a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee. She tells us she has “devoted her life and career to getting books into the hands of young readers.”

The hero of Scattergood’s latest YA book, The Way to Stay in Destiny (Scholastic, 192 pp., $16.99, hardcover; $6.99, paper; $10.99, Kindle), is an orphan named Thelonious (Theo) Monk Thomas by his hippie parents. It’s May 1974, and Theo has fallen into the hands of his mother’s brother, Uncle Raymond, a Vietnam veteran who has been working in Alaska since his war ended as a mechanic. He learned this skill during his time in the Army.

Theo’s parents died when he was four years old. His grandparents had raised him until their health failed, and then turned him over to Uncle Raymond, whom Theo “had never laid his eyes on.”

Uncle Raymond moves Theo from Kentucky to Destiny, Florida. In Kentucky, Theo had been in the same class with the same twelve kids forever. Now Theo and Uncle Raymond live in a boarding house that doubles as a dance studio in which a large piano tempts Theo who shares the musical skills of the man he was named after. Until Uncle Raymond takes over Theo’s life, the boy had been destined to be a famous musician or perhaps a big leaguer. His uncle has other ideas, and lays them down as laws.

Uncle Raymond carries everything he owns either in a heavy tool chest or in his old Army duffle bag He has a bum knee and complains it about constantly. When he wants to get Theo’s attention, he punches him in the arm, hard. He speaks abrupt, non-standard English.As in, “Don’t you know nothing?  It ain’t no ocean.”  And he tends to holler.

Uncle Raymond used the bus ride from Kentucky to Florida to lay out his rules. He reiterates them in the rooming house. “Things are different now,” he says, pounding his fist into his palm over and over again.  “You got to follow my rules.”

The primary source of conflict is the piano. When Uncle Raymond finds Theo playing it, he slams the keyboard cover on the boy’s hands. “Nobody but a fool wastes time on music,” he says.

At this stage of the novel I wondered what could happen to Theo and Uncle Raymond that would be uplifting or redeeming. Nothing much good can be said about Uncle Raymond. He seems to me to be straight out of a Dickens novel.

Uncle Raymond got his new job in Florida thanks to the intervention of an old Army buddy. “The boss is coming in early to show me the ropes,” he says. “ Least there’s somebody left who appreciates what we both fought for.”

Uncle Raymond seems permanently marked by his Army service. He demands that Theo “makes up the bed tight with that military fold thing.” He also insists that Theo does the laundry and folds the underwear in squares. Do we ever find out why Uncle Theo behaves so hatefully toward 6th grader Theo?  Yes, we do; it relates to the culture wars of the sixties.

613hdshagfl-_ux250_

Augusta Scattergood

Theo’s parents were antiwar protestors. Raymond claims they spat on him and called him a baby killer when he came home from Vietnam. Theo’s mother, he tells the boy, went off to a “fancy college, met your daddy, she didn’t care a thing about me. I was far off, fighting for my country. He was carrying signs, spitting on soldiers. Didn’t matter what our family always stood for.”

When Raymond goes off to sleep, Theo says, “Before long, my uncle’s yelling about jungles and guns and spit.”

In the final chapter, Theo says that his uncle “might be coming around.” He even laughs, saying “I’ll never get used to that sound.”

The changes in Uncle Raymond seem abrupt and unrealistic. He has been depicted as an extremely deranged Vietnam veteran. At least he isn’t a drunk or drug addict and he does have a job. But he shouldn’t be raising a child.

This book leaves the young adult reader with a narrow view of the Vietnam War, of hippies, and of Vietnam veterans. That is not a good thing.

—David Willson

 

 

Choosing Courage by Peter Collier

Peter Collier’s Choosing Courage: Inspiring Stories of What It Means To Be a Hero (Artisan, 240 pp., $18.95) is an image-heavy children’s book (aimed at fourth to eight graders) that presents stories of American military heroism from World War II to the wars in Afghanistan, along with a short chapter on civilian heroes in the 21st century.

Collier’s chapter on the Vietnam War contains profiles of three well-known Medal of Honor recipients (Sammy Davis, Alfred Rascon, and Bud Day), and two lesser known men who received the military’s highest honor for courage under fire: Thomas Norris and Michael Thornton. The chapter opens with a three-page summary of the war’s history that is accurate, if exceedingly brief. Collier then details the exploits of the MOH recipients and includes sidebars on combat medics, American POWs, and SEAL training.

The civilian section contains essays by Vietnam War MOH recipients Jack Jacobs and Allen Lynch, as well as an account of Vietnam War veteran Rick Rescorla’s heroic actions at the World Trade Center during the September 11, 2001, attacks.

—Marc Leepson

Little Bird Dog and the Big Ship by Marjorie Haun

Little Bird Dog and the Big Ship (AuthorHouse, 44 pp., $21.99, paper) is the first volume in what author Marjorie Haun calls her  “The Heroes of the Vietnam War” series of children’s books. This short book, illustrated by Stephen Adams, looks at former South Vietnamese Air Force Major Bung-Ly and his escape from Vietnam with his wife and five young children during the chaotic last day of the war, April 30,1975.

Bung-Ly gathered up his family in the middle of the night as the North Vietnamese took over. The family left South Vietnam aboard the Major’s Cessna 0-1 Bird Dog. After dodging machine gun fire over Con Son Island, Bung-Ly flew the plane out to the South China Sea, where—after more than a few harrowing moments—he landed safely on the deck of the U.S.aircraft carrier Midway.

Haun tells this stirring story well. Her one-page summary of the Vietnam War, though, should not be taken as the last word on that subject. She writes:

“South Vietnam had been a peaceful nation and its people were very kind to America. But enemies from the North fought for years trying to overrun the beautiful, tropical country which was home to farmers, fisherman, and merchants.

“The American Military went to South Vietnam to help their government fight invaders from the North who wanted to take over everything and force the people to live in a way they did not want to live. After many years of war, the Americans were ordered by their government to leave. Sadly the enemies from North Vietnam took over the country. Thousands of good and peaceful people from South Vietnam were rescued, and the Aircraft Carrier Midway became their temporary home.”

—Marc Leepson

My Grandpa’s War by David Volk

The narrator of David Volk’s children’s book My Grandpa’s War (CreateSpace, 36 pp., $10, paper) is a ten-year-old girl who is nicknamed “Sarge” by her Vietnam veteran grandfather.

This is a sweet, positive book, which deals with the painful legacy of the Vietnam War in a personal way—the necessary amputation of grandpa’s leg due to war injuries he never overcame. At the end of the book, he is back out on the dance floor with grandma.

The author—who was drafted into the Army and served in the Vietnam War as a 101st Airborne Division combat photographer—tells us that Rick Eilert, the former Marine and the author of For Self and Country, was the model for the grandpa character.  Rick Eilert recently died at the age of 64 of a heart attack and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Jason Folkerts’ illustrations are effective and work well with the moving text of this children’s book. I recommend this book for elementary school library collections.

The author’s website is www.MyGrandpasWar.com He is donating a portion of book sales to veterans’ groups.

—David Willson

Dogtag Summer by Elizabeth Partridge

 

The plot of Elizabeth Partridge’s Dogtag Summer (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 240 pp., $16.99) begins in 1981 when the eleven-year-old protagonist, Tracy, and her best pal, Stargazer, find a dogtag in an ammo box in her adoptive father’s workshop.  Eventually, the reader finds out the importance of the dogtag and what it means to Tracy.

I won’t act as a spoiler here, but in this young adult novel the meaning of the dogtag seemed crystal clear to me the moment it was discovered. Tracy’s adoptive father is a stereotypical Vietnam vet with alcohol dependency,  PTSD, intimacy problems, and a low-level job. Tracy herself is half Vietnamese and is called “gook” and worse by her peers.

Because of Stargazer’s loopy name, I figured his parents would be hippies, and I was correct. His father is a stereotypical peacenik who refers to Vietnam veterans as “baby killers,” which made me very uncomfortable, which may have been the goal of the author.

I have met many Vietnam veterans with alcohol and intimacy problems, but none of the hundreds of peaceniks and hippies I have spent time with ever called me a baby killer, even though they knew I served in Vietnam. Maybe I was just lucky.

Even so, the stereotyping made the book a hard read for me, as did the pervading sadness of the book and the secret-keeping, which drove the plot forward to the end. Eventually, Tracy finds out some of the truth about her origins: that her real name was Tuyet, for one thing, and that her mother was not a prostitute.

I found the appendix annoying, and I’ll give just one example. The author says: “The television reporting of the war turned many people, like Stargazer’s father, Beldon, against the war, angry at the government and at the GI’s who had fought there.”  It would take me several pages to deconstruct that sentence, so I won’t, but it serves as an example of the over-simplification that is endemic in this novel.

Elizabeth Partridge has a degree in Women’s Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of biographies of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.  Partridge has won many writing prizes and honors.
—David Willson