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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Overreaching Premise Leads to Something's-Missing Story

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Jay Thacker knows exactly what people think of Native Americans - they're dirty, drunken, lazy Indians. He's heard it all in his 12 years. But no one talks about Indians who are strong, brave and heroic. Indians like his dad. Someday, Jay knows, his dad's going to come home from the war decorated with all kinds of medals. Then, everybody will see. They'll forget all the jobs from which he was fired, all the times he drank too much, all the bruises he left on his wife's body, and they'll remember that his dad isn't like they think - he's a hero.

In the meantime, though, Jay's got to tough it out in the Utah desert. He and his mom are living with her parents in the tiny town of Delta, which seems to offer little more than rattlesnakes and relentless heat. Jay just wants to go home to Salt Lake City. With both of his parents. But his dad's Missing in Action and his mom's acting like her husband's already dead. It's up to Jay to keep the faith.

Playing baseball with the guys from town keeps Jay's mind off his troubles, even though the boys like to call him "Chief" and razz him about all things Indian. Still, having friends to hang out with makes life a whole lot more bearable. Which is why he can't tell anyone about Kenji Tanaka. Ken is a 17-year-old Jap who lives at nearby Topaz internment camp and works with Jay on grandpa's farm. Jay's not sure what he thinks of the loudmouth Californian, but he knows one thing: Ken's a force to be reckoned with on a baseball diamond. As the two work together, practice together, even learn to dance together, Jay realizes that maybe Japs aren't so bad after all. Maybe the things people say about them are as wrong as the things people say about Native Americans. There's only one problem: Lots of people in town, including Jay's mom, don't see it that way. They don't want him hanging out with anyone even remotely associated with the monsters who attacked Pearl Harbor. Even Jay's not sure he wants to be public friends with Ken. When someone discovers the boys' secret friendship, Jay's forced to make a tough decision - stand up for his buddy or risk losing one of the best friends he's ever had.

Missing in Action, a historical novel for middle graders by Dean Hughes, rides on an ambitious premise. Probably too ambitious. It tackles stereotypes, prejudice, abuse, faith, discrimination, war, friendship, family and more. Because of this overreaching goal, the story slides here, there and everywhere, so unfocused that it never reaches its grand potential. And it does have potential. The setting, for instance, is unique, as is the bi-racial narrator. With all the subplots meandering through the story, it could have been a very rich, affecting book. As is, the characters don't develop enough, there's no real plot, and the whole story lacks the oomph I was hoping it would have. It's not a terrible read, it's just not anywhere near as good as it could have been. I hate that.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Under the Blood-Red Sun by Graham Salisbury and The Fences Between Us [Dear America series] by Kirby Larson)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for several references to naked girls

To the FTC, with love: Another library

1 comment:

  1. I recently read and enjoyed Search and Destroy by Hughes, but I can see where there might be some of the same issues. I've heard good things about Soldier Boys.


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