War and Millie McGonigle – Karen Cushman. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 9781984850102
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5
Genre: historical fiction
What did you like about the book? 12-year-old Millie McGonigle has a lot to be worried and sad about: she is mourning the recent loss of her beloved grandmother, her best friend has moved away, she is quite certain her mother much prefers her sickly younger sister Lily, her parents scrimp and save to make ends meet, and she is also contending with bully Dicky Fribble. To make matters worse, her family has opened their home – and given away Millie’s bed – to cousin Edna, and expect Millie to assume a lot of responsibility around the house, doing chores and errands and taking care of Lily and their little brother Pete, while her parents work a variety of jobs. And it is the fall of 1941, in San Diego, California, and the threat of war in the Pacific looms large. The last gift Millie received from her Gram was a notebook, and based on Gram’s final bit of advice, she uses the notebook to funnel all of her sadness and pessimism into the creation of a “Book of Dead Things,” in which she records and illustrates dead sea creatures and lists people who have died.
Strangely, things start to improve for Millie and her family after the U.S. enters the war in December. Both of her parents find steady work, she makes a new friend, and changes her attitude about her sister. Most importantly she begins to understand her complicated feelings about losing her grandmother, and realizes that maybe she misinterpreted what Gram told her. She finds comfort in being part of her tight-knit Mission Bay community, basks in the love of her parents and siblings, seeks solace in the natural world around her, and takes pride in her attempts to help the war effort.
Karen Cushman is so gifted at creating a full environment in her books, with full sensory detail and a world of characters that readers will immediately become attached to, and the story of Millie McGonigle is no exception. It is clear that Cushman has done a great deal of research on the food, fashion, and popular culture of the time period, as well as the history and the biology of the area; readers will learn a lot about life on the west coast World War II homefront. And while the depth of the research is evident and admirable, it is the voice of the heroine that resonates most. Millie tells her story and conveys her fears and worries with spot-on 12-year-old honesty and humor; readers will be able to relate to many of the social struggles she faces, and cheer for her emotional growth. So many other lovable characters populate the book, especially Millie’s rascal brother Pete and his gang of friends, as well as a few that readers will love to hate, including the despicable Dicky Fribble and his equally odious mother. An author’s note sheds light on Cushman’s inspiration for the story, as well as sources of her research.
Anything you did not like about the book? no
To whom would you recommend this book? Depression era and World War II historical fiction fans in upper elementary grades, particularly readers of classic homefront novels by Patricia Reilly Giff or Avi, or more recent books like Turtle in Paradise and Full of Beans.
Who should buy this book? Public and elementary school libraries
Where would you shelve it? Fiction
Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? no
Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City: Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.
Date of review: 7/12/2021