Winnie's War is a coming of age novel set during the Spanish influenza epidemic of World War I. It also carries strong echoes of the hurricane that devastated Galveston in 1900, and left Winnie Grace's mother an emotionally damaged shell of a woman. Winnie lives in Coward Creek, Texas, with her parents, her two younger sisters, and her grandmother, Clara. Winnie rails against her remote mother's inattention and schemes to stay out from under her grandmother's autocratic thumb. She laments the growing distance in her relationship with her best friend, Tillie, and enjoys spending time with friend (and planned beau), Nolan. She plays chess with Tillie's Jewish grandfather, even though Mr. Levy is sometimes a target of bigotry. And Winnie fights to protect her family, any way she can, from the dreaded flu.
I found this book a nice combination of "young teen coming to terms with growing up" and well-researched historical novel. I especially appreciated the details, like the way that rumors spread through Coward Creek (the idea that putting vaseline under your nose would help prevent the flu, and the idea that "the Germans were going to team up with the Mexicans and invade Texas"). Coward Creek is almost a character in the book - I felt like I was walking down the dusty streets myself. And I could feel the fear of the flu in the air.
Winnie is an easy heroine to love, outspoken and loyal, but occasionally prone to mistakes. She shows some tendencies towards being obsessive compulsive, and I thought that this was a nice touch, in light of her mother's emotional issues. Clara is also a strong character, hard to like, but impossible not to respect. And Winnie's taciturn beau, Nolan, is a perfect foil for her. Moss draws even minor characters deftly, contributing to the small-town feel of the novel - in a small town, everyone matters. Here are two brief examples of her character sketches:
"That sounded like Mr. Levy. He might be a little grouchy, but you could tell his true nature by his hands, as gentle turning the fine pages of a book as they were putting a squiggly worm on a fishing line. My papa had gentle hands, too." (Page 3)
"Miss Livingston lived with her father in a house close to the park. It was just the two of them. He worked at the bank and played the horn in the town band. Everyone liked him. He was the kind of person who just came on in and made himself at home, no matter where he was." (Page 51)
And here are a couple of other examples, to give you a feel for Winnie's voice:
"Nolan Field and I were destined to be married, though I wasn't sure he knew it yet. We were like two young lovers haunting the moors of England, except we haunted the creek by my house." (Page 18)
"There are worse things than losing a best friend, but just right then, it didn't feel like there was." (Page 29)
Winnie's War is an excellent example of historical fiction. Though filled with interesting detail, the details never overwhelm the characters or the story. Amazon classifies this title as young adult fiction, but I think it would also be a good fit for middle schoolers (echoing the growing pains seen in tween books from other time periods, like Violet Raines and Shug, albeit with a more bleak backdrop). Although there's a picture of a girl on the cover, and the book is told from that girl's first-person perspective, I think that the references to war and flu and hurricanes, and the stalwart character of Nolan, could make Winnie's War work for boys, too. Librarians should absolutely give this one to fans of Hattie Big Sky. Highly recommended.
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: February 3, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Becky's Book Reviews, Sarah Miller
Author Interviews: A little sweet, a little sour, Neesha Meminger, Welcome to the Oakenwyld, 2010: A Book Odyssey
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.