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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 6: The Port Chicago 50 vs The Story of Owen


The Port Chicago 50
by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook/Macmillan
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





  1. Shellie Rich says

    This match went about how I expected it to. I loved Owen but I felt like it was unlikely that it was chewy enough for Rachel Hartman. p.s. This is so fun!

  2. BRAVO, Ms. Hartman!

  3. Totally unexpected! I just knew that the author of a dragon book (Seraphina) would go for a dragon book. And she kind of did. Basically Rachel Hartman says The Story of Owen was so good that it convinced her to choose Port Chicago 50 to be the winner. She rhapsodizes about The Story of Owen, barely mentions Port Chicago, and then she gives the match to Port Chicago. 2/3 of my 114 students and teachers chose The Story of Owen. I am happy to report, however, that my one student who has been correct through the whole tournament is still in the game with her pick of Port Chicago 50!

  4. I loved both these books but while I was rooting for Owen I would have been happy whatever the result. Rachel Hartman did a fantastic job judging this round. What a great idea to use politics to connect these two seemingly disparate books so that she could judge them on an even ground!

  5. Anne Clasper says

    What an incredibly well written judgment. I, too, preferred The Story of Owen, but Rachel Hartman made it so clear that Port Chicago 50 was the right book to move forward.

  6. This is one of the most well written decisions we’ve ever had. Bravo, Rachel Hartman. This was a hard battle for me because I have great love for both of these books. The way Hartman and tied them both together and expounded on their themes is brilliant, and she fully convinced me the right decision was made.

  7. Perhaps there should be two battle of the books challenges — one for fiction and one for nonfiction. I find comparing the two like comparing apples to oranges. I really enjoyed “The Story of Owen” but I agree that the “Port Chicago 50” story needs to be told. One book is enjoyable and other somewhat enjoyable but very informative. With two separate divisions, both could be winners.

    • Battle Commander Battle Commander says

      Yes, it is a challenging comparison, but over the years, part of the fun of the Battle, has been seeing how our judges work out ways to make comparisons. It is what happens with many of the awards too, say Newbery and Printz.

  8. Sigh. I didn’t do a lot of reading this year — and Story of Owen is the *one* book in the battle I’m super excited about. But I had a feeling — judges rarely choose the book *so* similar to what they themselves write, I’ve noticed.

    Anyway, makes me feel good about choosing Owen for my Undead pick. Though I’m skeptical that was enough….

  9. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    I love being surprised by what the judges pick. You just never know. 🙂

  10. Whaddya think of the comparison between Owen and The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy? I prefer Owen (more carefully crafted, more vivid characters, and, oh my god, the world!), but I also loved Selwyn. It’s been well appreciated, but still receives mixed reviews on Goodreads. But that doesn’t matter: it conveys much of the same energy of Owen, while of course being a substantially different book. And, of course, Ezra Pound (antisemitism? I’m Jewish and “In a Station of the Metro” is stunning, put simply)! Ah, poetry!

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