When authors choose historical moments in time to set their stories against, surely the temptation must be to go for the big shiny moments, yes? The Alamo. The sinking of the Titanic. Gigantic wars. Dramatic moments in human history are the natural lure and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s natural. So what are we to make of the author that eschews all that for the seemingly less interesting eras? Say, for example, 1946? World War II is over and America hasn’t fully bought into McCarthyism quite yet. There aren’t any spies or big battles to cover. Instead there’s something more insidious. The feel of a nation trying to do what is right, but also getting sucked into the fear and paranoia that will cause countless problems a couple years down the line. To write something this subtle without boring a child audience takes a deft hand, and author Ellen Klages is up to the challenge. Having already established her setting and characters in the Scott O’Dell Award winning book The Green Glass Sea, Klages now turns her sights on the aftermath of WWII in America and the effects of the time period on cultural and personal relations. A little slow to start, once this sequel gets moving there’s no stopping it.
It’s been eight months since World War II ended. Eight months and in that time Dewey Kerrigan has fitted in nicely with her friend Suze Gordan’s family. Now they’ve moved from Los Alamos to Alamogordo, New Mexico because of Mr. Gordon’s current work on the government’s rocket program. Things are progressing fairly quickly for the girls as well. They’re both still fascinated by mixing Suze’s artistic talent with Dewey’s scientific bent, but they’re also growing up. Suze makes friends with a Mexican-American girl and her family, Dewey is friends (or more?) with a boy who shares her technical bent. But in the meantime tensions are brewing. Is Dewey closer to Suze’s scientific mom than she is? Are Mr. and Mrs. Gordan going to divorce over their different beliefs? Why is Mrs. Gordan feeling so ill? And who is this strange motorcycle riding woman who’s just driven into town looking for Dewey of all people? Mysteries are answered and realities changed in an America where nothing is as straightforward as it seems.
The book begins slowly, I just have to tell you right now. Unless children have read its predecessor, I’m not altogether certain they’ll stick with the first few chapters where nothing much really happens unless they’re pushed a little. Yet as it goes on, White Sands builds its own momentum. But to find the right child audience for this book, you have to know your reader. In Green Glass Sea Dewey is reading Caddie Woodlawn and only enjoying the section where Caddie starts fixing clocks. There are lots of kids like Dewey out there who prefer novels with science, non-fiction, politics, and realism. These are the children that visibly cringe when you move a Harry Potter novel into their physical sphere. The ones who find a great deal of satisfaction in reading about process. And there really is something wholly satisfying in watching people do what they love even if it isn’t what you personally love too. I’m not saying that fantasy readers won’t also find a lot to enjoy in this title but personally I think that it will be particularly beloved by a very particular type of reader.
As for the age range there are certainly some older themes at work here. Parents whose marriage may be on the rocks because of political beliefs. First kisses. Whether blood really is as strong as everyone says. That said, it’s rendered in kid-friendly language, so I don’t think an intelligent ten or eleven-year-old would have much difficulty with the reading.
When a historical novel feels contemporary because the emotions and characters feel like they exist in the here and now, that’s the mark of a great book, my friend. One of Klages’ real talents is the balance of the past and the present. She takes great pains to remain historically accurate. That’s why the Author’s Note at the back includes a bibliography of titles discussing the 1940s, the atomic bomb, spinthariscopes, the V-2 rocket program, and White Sands National Monument. There’s even additional information on El Paso’s first TV station (it comes up in the plot) and Yuri Gagarin, the first Russian cosmonaut. As for the characters, the leap between two points of view (Dewey and Suze) without traipsing into first person territory is difficult and yet done seamlessly here. You never feel jerked from one person’s view to another’s. This book may have its basis in the past, but it feels fresh to read it today.
My husband is a screenwriter with a penchant for writing noirs. In his research he’s done a lot of study on Operation Paperclip, the O.S.S.–U.S. Military employment of scientists from Nazi Germany just after the Second World War. Basically, it was when America hired Nazi scientists to work for us instead of the Russians. It’s not the kind of thing many people know, and I’ve certainly never seen it mentioned in children’s literature. It was fascinating to find not only a mention of this in White Sands but actual Nazi scientists interacting with the characters. So when Dewey asks why Nuremberg even happened (“How come the army executed these Nazis, and not the V-2 ones?”) it’s a completely legitimate question that people are still asking to this day. Not that the kids in the book ever find an answer to it.
Though it’s not at the center of the story, the Gordons’ debate over nuclear proliferation is also fascinating. Mr. Gordon explains patiently to Dewey that this is scientific progress and cannot, nay, should not be stopped. Mrs. Gordon however sees this as the very cause of wars and not the prevention. And Klages, to her credit, never really dings the bell and declares one side a winner over another. Still, you’ll probably figure out which take she prefers by the story’s end.
Like I say, maybe it’s not a book for every kid out there but certainly it has an audience. Readers who read Green Glass Sea and wondered how Suze and Dewey would fare in the same home will find the answers. Readers who enjoy this period in history, any period in history, rockets, exploding atoms, science, or any or all of that will find something to enjoy here. Great writing, a fascinating plot, and female road hogs (I’m not kidding). What’s not to love? A great follow-up by an accomplished writer.
Notes on the Cover: Yeah, that’s nice. Remember the nuttiness involved with the last cover? They originally began with this disembodied girl’s face floating above the green glass sea, but due to her fogginess and her time period she looked like nothing so much as Anne Frank. Unfortunate. They erased her and made the shiny equations floating over the same sea shiny. This time it seems (and I’ve only seen the ARC so I could be off on this one) as if they’ve eschewed the shiny option for this cool ultra-crisp colorized look at a town with a single rocket becoming the “I” in "White Sands, Red Menace". Nice color scheme. Nice that they’re not trying to hide the fact that the book is historical (extra points for that one, actually). Nice all around.