Background: In the interest of full disclosure, I should start by telling you that Tanita Davis is my friend. We haven't met face to face (yet), but we have long been emailing and commenting back and forth on one another's blogs. Finding Wonderland (where Tanita blogs with Sarah Stevenson) was one of the very first blogs in my blog roll, some 3 1/2 years ago). And Tanita was one of my panelists when I was the organizer for young adult fiction, during the first year of the Cybils (she read an astounding number of books).
I read and loved Tanita's first book, A La Carte. I didn't review it at the time, because I was kind of struggling with the whole question of impartiality, and how to treat books written by my friends. I've regretted not writing that review ever since (though I'm so not someone who can sit down a write a review unless the book is fresh in my mind). But the point here is that my feelings about not having written that review have influenced my more recent decision to just go ahead and say what I will about a book, whether a friend wrote it or not (see my reviews of Silksinger or Any Which Wall, for example). But I'll tell you all my background with the author, so you can take that into a account as you see fit. Sorry for the long preamble.
Review: Mare's War, by Tanita S. Davis, is the story of two teenage girls who, in the course of a forced family roadtrip, learn that their grandmother was part of the 6888th African American battalion of the Women's Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. Sixteen-year-old Octavia and her older sister Tali are less than thrilled when their grandmother, Mare, insists on taking them for a cross-country drive, to attend some sort of family reunion. Octavia (the narrator) explains:
"My grandmother isn't at all normal. She doesn't read mystery novels, or sing in a church choir, or knit, or sew. She doesn't do Jumbles in the newspaper, and she hates crosswords. She isn't at all soft or plump, doesn't smell like cinnamon, pumpkin bread, or oatmeal cookies. My grandmother, Ms. Marey Lee Boylen, is not the cookie type ... She wears flippy auburn wigs, stiletto shoes, and padded push-up bras." (Page 1)
"Our journalism teacher, Ms. Crase, would say that my grandmother is colorful, like somebody from a book. I say my grandmother is scary, mostly because I never know what she's going to do next." (Page 2)
As the car time starts to feel dull, the girls are at first mildly diverted, and eventually fascinated, by their grandmother's stories of her youth. These stories are related to the reader from Marey's first person perspective, not as if she was telling them now, but as she experienced them back in the 40's. Each chapter is labeled "Now" or "Then" (in a beautiful font). But this clarification isn't strictly necessary, because Octavia's 2009 California teen voice (above) is quite different from Marey's 1940's rural Alabama teen voice. Here are a couple of examples of Marey's voice:
"Mama don't understand why I got to go out and take up another job when I work enough at Miss Ida's, but I ain't trying to be nobody's house girl for the rest of my life. I aim to have something of my own someday, even if it takes all my blood, sweat, and tears." (Page 22)
"Dovey sings real sweet, and we all get quiet to hear her singing that hymn. Then Gloria sing, too, only louder, so we can all hear her, and even though Miss Gloria Madden works my nerves, I sure wish I could sing like that. How can a girl with such a sweet voice have such an evil way about her? Mama always say the good Lord don't make no mistakes, but sometimes I am just not sure." (Page 79)
Can't you just hear Marey's voice in your head? I mean, I wasn't there (in Alabama, in the 40's, talking to a not-so-educated African American girl), but it sure sounds dead on to me. I've rarely read a young adult novel that so strongly cried out to be read aloud (with the possible exception of Thirteen Reasons Why, but that is a very different book).
The modern-day sections of the book add dimension to Marey's story. It's interesting to see how she turned out. And seeing Tali and Octavia's reactions to Marey's story will, I think, make the book more accessible to today's teen readers. There are fun parts to the 2009 roadtrip storyline -- roadside diversions, a bit of mischief by Tali, and an ongoing battle over Mare's cigarette-smoking. There are occasional postcards included between chapters, as Tali and Octavia write home, and these are entertaining (though, a minor nit, you have to turn the book sideways to read the postcards, which I found annoying). These sections demonstrate some character development, too, especially for Octavia.
But personally, I read the modern-day sections relatively quickly, because I was eager to get back to Marey's story. Marey is strong and loyal, even when she's afraid. She proves to be an excellent example (once they understand her better) for her somewhat shallow (Tali) and timid (Octavia) granddaughters. From the very start of the story, her determination to make a better life for herself and her younger sister shines through. And she has some harrowing roadblocks along the way. Here's one more quote, to give you a picture of Marey:
"Didn't nobody ever tell me I was this tough. Didn't nobody ever tell me no girl could work this hard, and nobody never said that work this hard could give you pride. My nails might not be nice enough for polite folk, and my face might not be clean, but I earned my place in this man's army. I earned it.
And ain't nobody gonna make Marey Lee Boylen go home." (Page 103)
I learned a tremendous amount from this book, without it ever feeling like a history lesson. Mare's War is filled with details about the role of the Women's Army Corps in World War II, and day-to-day life during the war. It's also a window into then less-than-stellar treatment of African Americans, particularly in the south, in the time period before the Civil Rights movement takes hold. Even as they are training to be part of the US Army, to help fight a war, Marey and her friends are kept segregated. Humiliations, such as separate water fountains and insults from white soldiers, are routine. It's just accepted that on the train "White girls ride in a car further back, away from the soot and the noise" while the "colored girls" are right behind the engine. I knew about this kind of treatment before, but I felt it when reading Marey's words. As the best fiction does, Mare's War gives readers insight into the lives of people different from themselves.
Mare's War is a book that will stay with you. Highly recommended for anyone who likes to read about strong female characters. Although most of the characters in the book are women, the World War II setting might be enough to pique boys' interest, too. I hope so, because this is a book that deserves to be widely read.
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: June 9, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Book Divas, Reading Rants!, TheHappyNappyBookseller, Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup, Colleen Mondor. See also some brief discussion of the book at Omnivoracious
Author Interviews: Chicken Spaghetti, The Brown Bookshelf, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Jama Rattigan
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.