It's summer, finally, even if the weather here in the Pacific Northwest is still a bit on the cool and rainy side. And summer for many people conjures up very specific childhood memories. For me, it's lazy days reading whatever I wanted to, berry picking, riding my bike, eating popsicles, and piling into the car for the occasional weekend away. We never went on long driving vacations like many of my friends did -- no Grand Canyon tours for me -- which is probably why it's something I'm looking forward to doing with Sprout when he's old enough. My husband did do a number of road trips, and he has fond memories of stopping at every out of the way place to see various oddities, and taking photos at all the "Welcome to" signs they came across.
Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis is, on one level at least, a road trip novel. Octavia is less than thrilled to be taking a trip cross-country to a family reunion. Two big reasons she doesn't want to go: older sister Tali, obsessed with friends and fashion, and grandmother Mare, who "isn't at all normal" like a grandmother should be. Mare is larger than life, with a sense of style and spirit all her own. Octavia loves predictability, and Mare is anything but. So this summer road trip promises to be one major ordeal.
And then Mare starts talking about the old days, her years spent as a WAC during World War II. That's when the story splits in two, with Octavia's storyline alternating with chapters about Mare's life then, her friends and the challenges of making her way in an unfamiliar world far from home. Mare's stories about her own bravery -- escaping her alcoholic mother and mom's abusive boyfriend to land in a world of tear gas drills, barracks life and foreign deployments-- help Octavia to find the courage within herself. Gradually Octavia, whose life has always been about safety and security, begins to see that stretching outside her comfort zone may just make life more interesting, and even worth living. And both Tali and Octavia learn that there is a lot more to their unconventional grandmother than meets the eye.
Mare's War has a lot to say about the experience of African Americans during the war years, particularly female soldiers who found themselves a world away in cities like London and Paris. Author Tanita Davis does a great job here of mingling historical details with strong characters and compelling storylines, so the reader never feels bogged down in a history lesson. A common weakness of the alternate storyline-technique is that one of the plots usually comes out being much more intriguing than the other, but here Davis has hit a good balance. Young readers who may at first be put off by the history will soon find that Mare and her friends have problems that they can relate to, and are just as out of place serving in "this man's army" as they themselves might be at school or social situations. Personally I appreciate the realistic approach -- the girls aren't perfect, and neither is Mare, and this creates interesting tension within the storyline. While Octavia and Tali do come to appreciate and understand their grandmother a little better, it doesn't come right away and it isn't without some struggle. (The scene where Tali orders a drink at dinner, thinking she and Octavia are on her own, is one of my favorites.)
After reading this I've added two more entries to my TBR list -- A La Carte, Davis's first novel, and Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, about an African American girl who longs to fly planes during World War II.
Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis, Knopf
Winner of the Coretta Scott King Award
Sample quote: "What I know is this: God will surely help you, but you also got to help your own self."