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Round 1, Match 6: The Port Chicago 50 vs The Story of Owen
JUDGE – RACHEL HARTMAN
|The Port Chicago 50
by Steve Sheinkin
|The Story of Owen
by E.K. Johnston
Welcome, darlings, to this exciting instalment of Battle of the Books, wherein we watch Speculative Fiction heavyweight, The Story of Owen: Dragon-Slayer of Trondheim, take on Non-fiction champ, The Port Chicago 50.
I was given little in the way of judging criteria, so I’ve had to decide for myself what to base my judgement upon. This took some doing. Artistic merit? That didn’t seem like a useful way to judge non-fiction. What about quality of writing? A book doesn’t get into this competition unless it’s already at a pretty high standard, and speculative fiction and non-fiction have very different requirements. I found both books stylistically well-suited to their subject matter.
If I were to merely choose the book I found most enjoyable, that I naturally gravitated towards, I could have made up my mind without reading either book. The winner would have be The Story of Owen, of course. It’s speculative fiction about dragons and music, written by a Canadian. I, too, am Canadian and have written musical, dragon-centred fantasy.
Alas, that seemed like an unfair way to choose a book. I had to come up with something better.
Luckily, whoever made up these brackets gave me two books with one surprising element in common: politics.
I hear you moaning and groaning! Think politics are boring? Certainly the subject gets a bad rap, but I think that’s because it’s too often conflated with partisanship, blind adherence to dogma, and contentiousness. Politics, to my mind, isn’t really about any of that nasty stuff. I consider politics a cousin to philosophy, but where philosophy addresses personal questions of how to live a good life, politics is about our wider vision of the world. It’s about what we value, and how to go about creating a society where those ideals can bear fruit. I think that’s an exciting, vital place to be, right where the rubber of our ideas hits the road of reality.
So here I’ve been handed two beautifully political books in exactly this vein, ripe with ideas about what the world could be like, one drawing from history, one re-imagining the present. Most astonishing of all, I found these books conversing with each other in my mind, and the conversation itself has suggested the answer to my dilemma.
Let me start with The Story of Owen, because speculative fiction is, to me, the Queen of All Genres. It’s a fabulous tool for exploring political ideas, and Johnston unapologetically puts it to work here. This is the story of a family of dragon-slayers who choose to eschew fame and money in favour of defending the smaller communities that really need them. The communities, in turn, come together to support the dragon-slayers. It takes a proverbial village to raise a dragon-slayer, and everyone – from smiths and bards to high school students and excitable booksellers – has a part to play.
This is a classic strain of Canadian political thought, my friends, the one that gave us universal healthcare. It’s not ubiquitous these days, as we endure a spate of Conservatism, but it’s well-articulated here and would be immediately recognizable to any Canadian.
And this gives me something to consider, in evaluating the book: Owen does not challenge me, for the most part. Owen is preaching directly to my choir, and while it’s a song I’d like people to hear, it’s also the safe choice.
Still, the novel is engaging and well-done. The beauty of SF is that this is not allegory but metaphor, so the narrative can mesh with reality in a variety of ways. The dragons could represent any number of real-world challenges we face, from environmental devastation to racism, hatred, greed – any of the forces that threaten to pull communities apart. This thematic flexibility lends good SF a timeless quality: it can apply to new situations, across time.
One of the drawbacks to timelessness, however, is that sometimes it must give way to the timely. Timeliness, I think, is something The Port Chicago 50 has firmly on its side.
The Port Chicago 50 is about black sailors during WWII who refused to do dangerous, segregated work and were unjustly convicted of mutiny. Though their story has been nearly forgotten (in part because the Navy wanted it forgotten), the incident tipped the balance toward the ultimate desegregation of the US armed forces.
Though this book is about the past, it’s relevant to the present. Issues of race and inequality keep bubbling to the forefront of our attention. 2014 saw the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice – among others – demonstrations all across the US, and the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. In publishing, similar themes played out. Jacqueline Woodson’s historic National Book Award win was almost overshadowed by a series of unfortunate remarks. The “We Need Diverse Books” Kick-Starter exceeded expectations, but lamentable publishing statistics made the campaign necessary in the first place. Great progress has been made since the injustices borne by the Port Chicago fifty, but there’s a growing sense that this is one dragon that’s still not wholly slain.
The Story of Owen is narrated by Owen’s bard, Siobhan. Every dragon-slayer needs a bard, it is explained, to help shape people’s understanding of what dragon-slaying is really about. The story is important to the slayer’s success, conveying the shared values and sense of community necessary to inspire people to work together. And this is one place Owen does challenge me, in the sense of issuing a call to action: what is the story I think we need to hear right now?
Owen is a wonderful book, and I think everyone should read it. However, this key idea, about the bard being necessary to the dragon-slayer, is what finally convinced me to send The Port Chicago 50 along to the next round. These fifty black sailors – who were never mentioned in any of my history classes and were never exonerated by the US Navy – have found a worthy bard in Steve Sheinken.
Black lives matter. These fifty men mattered, and continue to matter. The time has come to hear their song at last.
— Rachel Hartman
Politics. A very good way of connecting books in this competition, as Ms. Hartman smartly realized: not just Owen and Port Chicago, but A Volcano Beneath the Snow, Brown Girl Dreaming, We Were Liars, Grasshopper Jungle, and Madman. Many of the YA books this year have a keen awareness of how politics and history impact society and young adult lives. Candace’s entitled family, Austin’s “Anytown, USA,” and Siobhan’s Trondheim particularly touch the nerve of society. They offer competing views: Trondheim’s liberalism in the face of industrialism, Candace realizing the extent of her own lies and those of her family, and Austin’s cynical, funny, but loving reflections on Euling, Iowa. Of course, I prefer the liberal Canadian view of things, where humor and criticism can mean that things do change. And all three books are realistic in their scope and discussion, presenting an admirable and complex look at politics for YA kids, among other diverse subjects. Port Chicago, though, is the true history of a dramatic, all-too-normal story. Well researched and narratively suspenseful, it almost reads like a novel, and Team Non-Fiction has an excellent title-bearer after the fall of The Family Romanov. (I’d love a Port Chicago vs. Volcano matchup 3rd round, but then there’s the versatile Astri, Benji, and Cadence.) One thing we should take from all these books, though, is that justice matters, in whatever form it comes.
– Kid Commentator RGN
THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 6:
THE PORT CHICAGO 50
About Battle Commander
The Battle Commander is the nom de guerre for children’s literature enthusiasts Monica Edinger and Roxanne Hsu Feldman, fourth grade teacher and middle school librarian at the Dalton School in New York City and Jonathan Hunt, the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. All three have served on the Newbery Committee as well as other book selection and award committees. They are also published authors of books, articles, and reviews in publications such as the New York Times, School Library Journal, and the Horn Book Magazine. You can find Monica at educating alice and on twitter as @medinger. Roxanne is at Fairrosa Cyber Library and on twitter as @fairrosa. Jonathan can be reached at email@example.com.
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