by Barbara Kerley
Warning: Contains spoilers.
It's 1977. Theo and his middle school classmates are working on a science project that mirrors that of the Voyager space probe. By asking a series of questions to generate ideas for their projects -- Who are we? What makes us human? -- Theo and his classmates are gently directed to examine what it is about humans that make us unique in the universe to include as an artifact for their own imaginary space probe.
While Theo is wrestling with this question he has even larger questions closer to home to confront. His father enlisted to fight in Vietnam when Theo was small and has not come home. His mother has told him his father is missing, not dead, but refuses to allow Theo and his sister to speak of him. On his birthday Theo once again receives a gift from his missing father, a model of a rocket, a family tradition meant to serve as a token of memory for his father. But Theo suspects that his grandmother may have some answers about his father that his mother won't address.
In secret meetings Theo's grandmother fills in the gaps about her son, his father. She hints and and intimates that the reasons for his disappearance may be more complicated than he can understand and she is clearly working against the wishes of Theo's mother in telling him so. His curiosity piqued, Theo's class project leads him to issues of Life magazine where he begins to get an education in the Vietnam War. He learns about the MIA's and POW's and feels this is the secret his mother has been keeping from him. He searches his mother's room and discovers more, letters his father sent that Theo was never shown, letter specifically about his return from the war and why he has not returned home yet.
Theo's sister becomes suspicious of their grandmother's activities on the weekend and enlists Theo to shadow her to a children's center where they witness a hippie working with kids. Confused and angry, Theo confronts his mother first with the possibility that his father's a POW and then with the frustration that she has known all along and hid the truth about his father from her. Theo learns that after returning from Vietnam that his father had so much anger and frustration inside of him that he didn't feel he could return home and be a good father. Theo's mom had kept the information from her children because she felt abandoned, and because it was easier to explain when they were young that he was missing.
Only later does Theo connect the dots and realize the hippie he saw at the children's center was his father, living within an hour's bus ride of his family. With everything finally out in the open Theo and his mother explain that their father had recently decided that the time had come to try and return. After many years and a lot of emotional confusion to break through Theo takes the initiative to meet his father in a pre-arranged location. Theo comes the realization that the thing that makes us human is that we ask questions, tough questions, not the least of which are all the questions he has for his father.
I would have been a few years older than Theo is in this book in 1997, probably a classmate of his older sister. It's interesting that Kerley sets the questioning in a Science class because we addressed these issues in Social Studies, but absolutely correct that it was easier to talk about NASA in the classroom than Vietnam. Much of what I learned about the Vietnam War during that time I learned just as Theo did, through Life magazine. These things just weren't talked about; I had an uncle in the military at the time and no one has ever really talked about that either. He came home was all that mattered.
It's an interesting way of addressing similar concerns teens may currently be facing now that The War Against Terrorism (aka The Iraq War) is entering its fifth year. We don't have the same issues where the war isn't being addressed, criticized or discussed in the media but the same confusion among children -- of soldiers or otherwise -- will always exist.
Recently I had a conversation with some parents over another book I enjoyed where, in breaking down the background for the different characters, I mentioned that one of the kids was a military brat (he was a brat) whose father was stationed in and died in Afghanistan. Oh, my god, that's dreadful! Why would anyone write about that in a children's book? That's just distasteful, there's really no call for that.
After all these years, people would still prefer to shelter children from the outside world and have them learn what they can through piecing things together from magazines, television and the Internet? That strikes me as both more dreadful and distasteful than anything a book could present to a child, to force all heads into the sand, but that's partially how we got ourselves into our current geopolitical situation so I shouldn't be surprised.
There's another plus in this for me that has less to do with the war aspect. The book's 1977 setting may provide a conversation starter for children of parents who remember the post-Watergate Carter era. It's a well-written period piece that doesn't feel stale or too deeply rooted to its time making it accessible to contemporary readers who might -- might -- pause to consider what middle school might have been like for their parents.