Review of the Day: Homefront
You know what I always liked about Anne of Green Gables? Her ability to stay suspended in a kind of self-righteous anger. There was something about her complete focus on how she had been wronged that spoke to me as a child. When you’re a kid there’s nothing more important than getting a fair shake. Injustice has no place in the world when your little sister has gotten a larger slice of cake or your brother was allowed to go to the local park on his own and you weren’t. The author that can tap into that vein of fury and pump it for all it's worth is the author worth your time and money. Now Doris Gwaltney is a newcomer to the world of children’s fiction, and I want you all to give her a big kiddie lit welcome. “Homefront” may look at first like one of the many small Southern town WWII novels out there this year, but reading it reveals a title that pounds with the heightened emotions of the pre-adolescent. Know a fan of Anne of Green Gables? Well the similarities between that book and this don’t stop with the tone, my friend.
Look, Margaret Ann has every reason in the world to be upset here, okay? I mean, see it from her point of view. It’s 1941 and you’ve been waiting your whole entire life to get a room of your own. Finally your sister goes off to college, you move in, and not a month later you’re kicked out once again. And why? Because your “perfect” gorgeous English cousin who everybody in the entire world loves except for you has taken your place. Sure, she's a refugee of the Blitz, but why does she have to be so evil? She’s taken your boyfriend. She’s taken your best friend. She’s taken your spot next to your dad at the table. And did I mention she took your room? Now you’re sleeping with Grandma (who snores) again, America's entered WWII, and the next thing you know your sister’s married, your brother’s enlisted, and you’re involved in a war of your own with perfect little Courtney. Well? Wouldn’t you be upset? Set in the rural Southern farmland, Gwaltney’s story follows Margaret Ann as she and her cousin find a way to go from hostile to accepting, though it might take death and tragedy to bring them together.
Death and tragedy. That makes it sound a bit bleak, doesn’t it? Actually, that’s misleading. There are good things that happen in this book and there are bad things that happen in this book. Doesn’t mean that the story exists without a sense of humor. What this story is able to do is capture characters and situations in such a way that they leap off the page with zazz and zing. So what did I like about the book? I just loved how seriously upset Margaret Ann could get at the injustice of the world. I couldn’t NOT look at her point of view! As a character, she has such a strong sense of self and storytelling (the book is told entirely in the first person) that she’s able to convince you of her own continual martyrdom at the hands of her cousin. About the time Margaret Ann’s sometimes boyfriend gives away her birthday present of a puppy to Courtney instead I found myself almost inexplicably with tears of frustration in my own eyes. How dare he!
But the remarkable thing about the book is that the author really does manage to convince you that a character can go from despising her cousin to coming around and actually liking her. Remarkable! Personally, I wasn’t wholly convinced that that “like” would become the adoration it eventually morphs into, but simply being able to display personal growth in a children's book like this is no small feat. Now as a character, Margaret Ann goes from a brazen type who hurts people, “simply because they don’t know they can do it” to someone who’s a little less self-absorbed. The danger with this is that she could have ended up dull. It’s a very real concern. I keep comparing the book to Anne of Green Gables because I think it has that same feel of a classic. However, even the Anne books weren’t immune to turning their heroine into a middle of the road type of character as the series progressed. To some extent I agreed with Grandma in this book when she disapproved of the change in her granddaughter. I wanted to keep Margaret Ann as feisty as ever. Still, while feisty people are fun to read about, you wouldn’t actually want to have to live with one 24/7. And since this book is about Margaret Ann’s personal growth, I guess the reader has to let go of early Margaret Ann in favor of the later (but still amusing) version. Hrm.
Oh. And the writing is good as well. It didn’t feel very Southern to me, but maybe that’s because I’ve never lived in the South. I did like phrases like, “you have two little sisters who would nibble the world if it was set before them” that would crop up occasionally in the text. Plus Gwaltney manages, in the course of this book, to take you through the entire Second World War, which is a feat that few authors ever bother with. For example, I think Graham Salisbury’s been slooowly telling his epic tale that began with “Under a Blood Red Sun” over the course of several decades. Usually an author will get as far as Germany surrendering and leave it at that. Not Ms. Gwaltney. She plunges in headfirst and nothing but the surrender of Japan is going to end the story. Nothing ever really felt anachronistic either. I found myself vaguely surprised when Margaret Ann would refer to “Japs” (it wasn’t often) or listen to her father’s/America’s justification for dropping the bomb on Japan. Smart people should pair this book with another 2006 book, “Weedflower” by Cynthia Kadohata for an alternate point of view.
I’ve a co-worker (also a children’s librarian) who said that as a child this was exactly the kind of book she would have gravitated towards. I wouldn’t have, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have loved it once I got into it. Besides, if we were giving out awards for the best opening line of the novel, “Homecoming” just might have to win my vote. I’ll leave you with it, as a perfect taste of what the story is like. Like it says, “You can love a person and not really enjoy their company.” Fortunately, I both loved this book and enjoyed its company fully. Worth discovering.
Notes On the Cover: Now look here, Simon & Schuster! Enough of this funny business. You’ve taken a perfectly nice book with a fairly fabulous story and rendered completely and utterly undesirable by the child audience at large. Have you no shame? Look, I’m sure that artist Loren Long is a perfectly nice person (not everyone can make Madonna’s books palatable) and, in most situations, this cover might have been fine. But not only have you smeared it in sepia, but even the historical fiction fans are going to eschew this one since the woman on the cover looks 45. Naughty naughty BAD Simon & Schuster. No cookie for you. Now take your positive reviews of this book, repackage it with an entirely new paperback cover, and never ever do this again. I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t yell at you. But do you realize how hard I’m going have to work to hand sell this puppy to the child population at large? Do you? You’ve just made my job that much harder. “No, really. It’s great. No, kid, ignore the cover and listen to what I’m saying . . . kid? . . . . . Kid?”