Fuse #8

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Review of the Day: Green Glass Sea

When I picked up “The Green Glass Sea” I was in an advanced state of historical fiction asphyxiation. Honestly, I have read more children’s books set during WWII that were published in the year 2006 than I even want to contemplate on an empty stomach. So I open this incredibly beautiful book up to its first page and what sits there, laughing in my face? The year 1943, cheery as all get out, just floating in the center of the paper. It took every bit of willpower I had not to just throw the book against a wall then and there. Instead, I read it. I read it on the subway. I read it on my couch. I read it in parks and on my lunch break and every place I could get away WITH reading it. I’ve always said that it takes a particularly good book to break a person out of their own personal prejudices. My prejudices were anti-anything set pre-1985. “The Green Glass Sea” however, managed to win me over with the key combination of great plot, enticing characters, and a wonderful balance of science and morality.

Dewey Kerrigan is not fond of change. She is not pleased when her beloved grandmother passes away and leaves her in the care of a neighbor. She is not pleased when she is moved along, like a package, towards her father in his undisclosed location. However, she is very very pleased indeed when she is at last reunited with her dad in Los Alamos, New Mexico. You see, Mr. Kerrigan is a scientist that has been working on a top secret and mysterious “gadget” that will help the U.S. win WWII. Also in Los Alamos is Suze, daughter of two brilliant parents, both of whom are working on the project. Suze wants nothing more than to fit in with the other girls in her school and if that means bullying and teasing Dewey, she’ll do it. But when Dewey’s dad leaves on a government mission, the two girls find themselves unexpected roommates. And it’ll take their burgeoning friendship to weather the new problems that are bound to come along.

As I may have mentioned before, I’m reading great heaping helpings of WWII children’s chapter books these days. One that I read recently, “Homefront” by Doris Gwaltney, covers a lot of the same time period as “The Green Glass Sea”. The take on dropping the bomb on Hiroshima in “Homefront” is sort of brushed off with the standard better-their-civilians-than-our-boys line. What’s so impressive about this book is that it manages to balance the horror of the event with the awe that comes from creating something so immensely powerful. Klages, and this is important, never tells her readers what to think. This is a book that allows kids to make up their own minds... sort of. I mean, Suze is pro-dropping the bomb. Dewey doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion one way or another. And Suze’s parents are strongly divided on the topic. We hear about scientists who worked on the project and who are proposing to petition so that the U.S. government never drops the bomb on innocent lives. Most interesting is the fact that Klages never felt a need to include a character fighting overseas in Japan while all this was going on. Some authors would sway child sympathies by including a beloved brother serving across the ocean. In a way, the book shows how scientists spend as much time as they can figuring out if they could do something rather than (to paraphrase Michael Crichton) if they should. And it’s very interesting to see how Suze’s mom goes from saying that that "the gadget" just HAS to work to almost questioning what she’s been a part of. As the scientists mention in the book, they love working with one another on this project. They just don’t like having Washington having a hand in it as well.

There is also more than an edge of authenticity to the novel. We hear that physicists in Los Alamos were called “fizzlers” while the chemists were “stinkers”. Klages is clever enough to dot her text with very real little details like these. It’s difficult to know whether or not people really were as broken up as the people of Los Alamos are when they hear of President Roosevelt’s death. Certainly a much bigger deal is made of it here than most children’s books out there. There’s also a wonderful sense that nothing here is anachronistic. People refer to the Japanese as “Japs” and Mrs. Gordon (Suze’s mom) smokes like mad. Every other scene you see her, she’s either lighting up or putting down a cigarette. I was also a little incredulous that Dewey wouldn’t have figured out what “the gadget” everyone’s parents were working on was. This is a very smart girl we’re dealing with here. If she knew but didn’t want to know, that should have been made clearer. And if she truly did not comprehend, how could she have missed all the clues?

The writing itself is great if occasionally in its own little world. It’s hard to know what to make of a sentence like, “The steaks came, with yellow corn on the cob, glistening with butter, and a baked potato with steam that smelled like edible laundry when she smooshed it open with her fingers.” Edible laundry? I’ve never heard that one before. What Klages really does well, though, is drive home the book’s emotional core. A horrible thing happens to Dewey and we watch as she moves about in shock. “She touches the barbed wire of the fence that surrounds the Tech offices, but that is too real, too close. She walks away, one foot in front of the other, trying to stay blank.” And later, “She finally begins to cry, a slow steady trickle, as if she is leaking.” Which, I might add, is wholly in keeping with her character.

Speaking of characters, how are they? Fab. Dewey is the first person you meet in the book and I was a little worried, at the beginning, that she might be too dry a kid to grow to love. I needn’t have feared. Though she's not immediately engaging, Dewey has a sly charm entirely of her own. Plus her intelligence and interest in science and mechanics makes her one of the very rare female heroines I’ve read of in a children’s book that loved science without being a wacky inventor. I also couldn’t help but love that when Dewey read, “Caddie Woodlawn” she was bored until Caddie tries to repair a clock. Suze, for her part, is utterly recognizable as the kid from school who wants to fit in so badly that she comes off as a little desperate. And her slow transformation from bully to friend is gradual enough that Klages is able to convince you of the shift.

Just a great book all around, I declare. Strong female characters that are interested in science. A nuanced view of a difficult time (to say nothing of the brilliantly chilling finish Klages tacks on at the end). Writing that smacks of talent and a plot that'll keep the reader guessing. One of the strongest books of the year, no question, and an enjoyable read to boot.

Notes On the Cover: Well, if any of you saw Roger Sutton’s recent post on this matter, you’ll understand that this cover has been through some very interesting editorial changes. Roger suggests that he may have preferred the first incarnation, but I am wholly with the good people of Viking with this one. Cover #1 was way too busy and the picture of the little girl, for reasons I do not fully understand, really does look like a Holocaust victim. So they deepened the colors and made the math symbols all shiny and transparent and (shop talk) clear spot lam. I don’t mind saying this was a particularly good decision and everyone should be commended heartily for making this perhaps the nicest cover of the season. Extra points for the word “Shazam” written in Greek letters (you’ll understand when you read the book) that appears not only on the cover’s spine in tiny type but the actual book itself.


At 9:50 AM , Blogger Roger Sutton said...

I like the chosen cover, too--just worried that it might not be inviting enough to kids, or might make the book seem "literary" (in the off-putting sense) when, as you suggest, it's a gripping read. I'm reminded of M. E. Kerr once saying to me that while she preferred strong graphic design and no pictures on her books, her publisher believed that kids like to see kids.

At 10:00 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I'd love to see if there were any studies to determine if this were true. The whole nature of book covers and book design is fascinating to me. My inclination on seeing "The Green Glass Sea" is to think that it would be kid friendly by deint of the shiny shiny letters. But then there's the math to contend with. Do I only think it's cool now that I'm an adult? Where's a good child advisory board when you need it?


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