Saturday, November 29, 2008

Review of Shooting the Moon by Frances O'Roark Dowell

If Jamie had the good luck to be an 18-year-old boy instead of a 12-year-old girl, she’d enlist in the army so fast, it’d make your head spin. But she isn’t, and so she volunteers at the rec center, keeping things tidy and playing endless games of gin rummy with her friend Private Hollister.

It’s her older brother TJ who chooses to enlist rather than go to college, and he is sent to Vietnam as a combat medic, much to TJ’s excitement and envy. Strangely, their father the Colonel, who is chief of staff at Fort Hood and apparently a gung-ho hooah Army man through and through, doesn’t seem nearly so thrilled about TJ’s decision.

When TJ, always an enthusiastic amateur photographer, begins sending rolls of film to Jamie from Vietnam, she learns to develop them so that she can send TJ the contact sheets. This brings her in contact with Sgt. Byrd, who has a way with words and a point of view about Vietnam that startles Jamie and makes her think. Even more startling are TJ’s photos, which start out as innocuous shots of barracks and smiling soldiers but soon become grimmer as they depict the horrors of war. It’s not long after TJ sends back an entire roll of photos of the moon that he disappears.

Jamie is a straightforward person – she knows who she is, what she wants, and what she likes. It’s when the folks around her confound her expectations of them that she begins to question things. Even so, it comes as a shock to her when she learns that her own father is equally capable of thinking for himself and coming to his own conclusions about the war.

With the exception of Jamie’s mom, who remains somewhat of a cardboard figure, every character is carefully drawn, from gawky Private Hollister to Jamie’s needy neighbor Cindy. TJ is enigmatic. Was it a desire to please his dad that led him to enlist, or maybe a childish desire to see new and exotic places? Why did he always love taking pictures of the moon, and why did he revert to his old hobby? I imagined him becoming so shell-shocked that he preferred to point his camera up at the sky at night rather than down at the misery and heartache all around him under the harsh light of day. We learn that he comes home safely after two years as a POW, and the moon photos allow us to guess that his sensitivity probably made these years a hell for him even as his creativity gave him the resilience to survive.

This is a heavy topic, but Jamie’s matter-of-fact voice and the plentiful touches of humor keep things from getting too grim or sentimental. In fact, the true hell of that war is kept at a distance from both Jamie and the reader, although we can guess at the anguish that her family will feel at knowing nothing about TJ’s fate or whereabouts for a long, long time when, after mentioning that her brother does come home from the prison camp eventually, Jamie says as the book’s last sentence, “But we didn’t know that yet.” What a powerful and subtle way of summing up what this family will go through – it gave me a jolt that I’m sure many perceptive young readers will feel as well.

Grades 5 - 8

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