a book review — and a look back to the 1950s

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I was so happy to receive this book review from a retired Army Occupational Therapist, Gwen Buteau (written with her daughter, Gail). Gwen served in the Army in the 1950s and was also an Army wife for her husband’s full career. She was kind enough to share some pictures from her training  at Walter Reed Hospital in the 1950s. (You can click on the pictures to see them better.) 

Gwen has reviewed Mary Pope Osborne’s My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck from the “Dear America” series (similar to the “American Girls” series, but without the dolls!). I read the book myself and thought it was just perfect for girls in the 4th – 9th grade range; it’s a sweet and exciting coming-of-age tale of an eighth-grade girl, Madeline Beck, who’s living on Long Island in 1941. Madeline’s father is a Naval officer who is at sea during the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She describes homefront efforts such as victory gardens, rubber and tin collections, and women entering the work force (“if you have ever sewed a button on a shirt, you can be a spot welder!”). The excitement comes in when she inadvertently witnesses Nazi operatives who’ve made it into Long Island Sound on a U-boat and are burying explosives on the beach. With the urging of her childhood-friend-turned-sweetheart, Johnny, she reports what she’s seen to the FBI, and saves the day.

Thank you so much, Gwen, for contributing this review!

For more on women like Gwen who served in the 1950s, see this interesting historical web site.

— Andria

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My name is Gwen Buteau. The military has always been an important part of my life. I served in the Army in the mid-1950’s as an Occupational Therapist. Here I am as a new 2nd Lieutenant during training at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

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My husband, whom I met at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, was an Army Infantry officer, and later went on to serve until retirement in the Army reserves.  My brother grew up to be an Army Airborne Ranger. My father was a Navy man, serving first in his youth as a yeoman writing the ship’s newspaper on the USS Nevada, and then again during World War II as a commissioned provost marshal.

I would like to recommend the young reader’s book My Secret War – The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck by Mary Pope Osborne to your blog followers and their children, especially their daughters. [Readers might be familiar with Mary Pope Osborne from her popular “Magic Tree House” series — so popular, in fact, that when we were stationed in Virginia, “Magic Tree House” audio books were given out with Chik-Fil-A kids’ meals! – editor]

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It is part of a larger grouping of fictional history books in the “Dear America” series published by Scholastic Inc. In them, young girls talk about their lives in diary or journal style during critical moments of our nation’s past, such as the Civil War or the Oregon Trail crossing. Each book ends with a brief epilogue and then a short chapter featuring pictures, charts, songs, maps, etc.  illustrating American life during the time of that book.

My Secret War was important to me because I really related to the protagonist, Madeline Beck. I was the same age as her in 1941 and I experienced many of the very same things she talks about in school and at home before and after the Pearl Harbor bombing. I kept a diary just like her, and also followed the unfolding of the war very closely like her, cutting and pasting front page newspaper articles into big scrapbooks I still have today.

Madeline’s father was a Naval officer serving overseas in the book, and so was mine. My dad was gone so much in fact that when he returned home he barely recognized my brother and I because we had grown so much! As I read her entries, I was reminded of the emotions I felt about missing him and wanting so much to be a part of the war effort on the home front as a way to help him. Letters to and from Madeline’s father are a major focus of her writing, and I felt the same about my dad and have saved many of his letters from then.  I think young girls today whose fathers (and mothers!) are serving away from home will be able to relate to this too, and that could help to make Madeline’s touching story even more personal, meaningful and relevant.

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Reviewer Gwen Buteau. Are you eating your hearts out over those classy uniforms, gals??! 

I believe the book’s author, Mary Pope Osborne, does a good job throughout of speaking in the honest voice of a young WWII-era girl who, on one hand,  is dealing with the tender challenges of youth and first love, while on the other hand tries to comprehend and be strong in the face of the frightening world event into which her family is thrown. One criticism is that I wish the author would have woven in more stories about all the important volunteer efforts local communities were organizing and participating in to support our service men and women abroad. Still, I think military families today will appreciate this tale and the author’s portrait of life’s struggles at home while a parent is away, and the family bonds that can be deepened in the effort.

I love this, Gwen! It’s so true — deployment can be a trial for families, but it can have a deepening effect overall, too. Thank you so much for sharing this.

Book Review: Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

By Amy Bermudez (Army)

Alice is having a tough year. Her father deployed to Iraq, her mother is struggling emotionally and neglecting her children as a result, her best friend is acting strange, her grades are slipping, and all she wants to do is to take care of things in her dad’s absence. The book follows the Bliss family from pre-deployment to post-deployment, and shows us how a fictional American family tries to cope with uncertainty and stress in a time of war.

When I picked up Alice Bliss, I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to relate to the title character. I’ve spent time being left behind while my soldier is deployed, but being a spouse and being a military brat are vastly different. Maybe the circumstances aren’t as different as I thought or maybe Laura Harrington’s skill as a writer should get the credit, but what Alice went through felt very familiar. Just like Alice, I have clung to routine and tradition in my husband’s absence. Alice takes joins the track team, I run long distances. She tries to maintain the appearance that everything is okay; that could be my blog tagline. When she pushes a classmate for an insensitive remark, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine a few people who I’d like to push. And I was nodding along when Alice went from missing her dad to feeling angry in a split second, then just as quickly regretting that she didn’t say more to him when he finally called. The push and pull of competing emotions, even though they don’t seem like they make sense, felt very real and true to my own experience.

Far less relatable is Alice’s mom, Angie. She retreats into herself, ignoring her children and selfishly demanding that they abandon activities that bring them comfort. I think the reason that she chafed me so much is that I don’t want to believe that I could be like her. I prefer to imagine that when I have children, I’ll be graceful and selfless, even during impossibly tough times like deployment. The truth is that there are Angies out there. They aren’t villains so much as average people straining under the weight of their circumstances. The fact that I found her so frustrating is again a credit to Harrington’s ability to create real characters.

The dialogue in the book is spot-on. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that Harrington is a playwright. This is her strength. The conversations manage to be natural and interesting. They stutter in the right places and they flow at the right times. I closed the book thinking, “I wish I could write dialogue like that!”

author Laura Harrington (www.lauraharringtonbooks.com/about/)

My favorite part of the book is the concluding scene. It’s beautiful and emotional. It’s the kind of moment that could be cheesy, but instead it just felt special. By that point in the book, most of the characters have grown up and grown into themselves. It’s a reward for the reader to see that even though things aren’t perfect by the end, the characters are going to be okay.

As much as I loved different aspects, the book wasn’t without flaws. Though it’s a minor quibble, I didn’t like that Alice’s parents are almost entirely referred to by their first names. Alice and her sister call them Mom and Dad, but the narrator describes them only as Angie and Matt. I felt that it created distance between the reader and Alice; I couldn’t see her world as she saw it.

Harrington’s narration choice felt clunky. The majority of the book focuses on Alice, but the third person point-of-view occasionally dips into her mother’s mind, her friend Henry’s mind, and briefly the mind of minor characters like her track coach. It’s especially jarring when we’ve spent pages and pages focused mainly on Alice, only to flip flop to her mother’s inner thoughts in the middle of the two of them fighting.

In terms of plot, I wasn’t a fan of the love story. It was another instance of the author bringing something real to the book – life doesn’t stop just because of deployment and who ever said love was convenient. I could also see its inclusion being there to further Alice’s coming of age, but the book didn’t need it. There’s plenty of meat to the story without Alice falling in love. This is probably just a matter of personal taste; I’m partial to female protagonists whose stories don’t include romantic entanglements.

In the end, the book is made up of perfect pieces (characters, dialogue, a just-right ending) that don’t quite come together as a whole. But Laura Harrington is a talented writer, and I’d love to read some of her other works.

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Read another review of Alice Bliss from the blog  YA Bookshelf

More about author Laura Harrington

Buy Alice Bliss

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moi

Amy Bermudez is a writer, educator, and Army wife currently stationed at Fort Bliss. She loves running, reading, and ice cream (but maybe not in that order) and writes a popular blog, Army Amy. Her Instagram is delightful. Some of her published articles include “Our Military Family, Our Reality” on The Huffington Post and “Moving is Not Following” on Spouse Buzz. She has a really adorable dog named Geronimo.