Books that Help Us Remember: Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States: our three-day weekend that often consists of BBQs, family, and the onset of summer, but – more importantly – provides us with the opportunity to stop and honor the men and women who have died serving in the Armed Forces.

I am fortunate enough not to have lost any of my own loved ones to war, and I am a book nerd. Because of this, I turn to literature to help me slow down and think about the cost of war and about those who serve and give their lives. Here are four books I’ve read this year that help me hold the fallen soldiers of America more clearly in my memory.

1. Doing My Part by Teresa R. Funke
(For ages 9-12, according to the book cover. WWII historical fiction. Set in Illinois.)
Helen is 14 years old, working on a factory assembly line over the summer to contribute to her family’s coffers and to the war effort. The story is elegant, realistic, and deeply entrenched in history. Helen is trying to prove how grown up and responsible she is, but doing the right thing consistently proves to be more complicated than she’d thought it.
During the book, she increasingly tunes in to what is going on in the war, especially as her cousin and her best friend’s older brother go off to join the fight.

Why It Helps Me Remember
Helen’s neighbor is Mrs. Osthoff, a German immigrant who has experienced deep losses and withdrawn from the world. Helen begins to connect with Mrs. Osthoff after accompanying her grandmother to deliver the news that Mrs. Osthoff’s son has died in the war.
Because of this direct brush of family and community with the death of a young soldier, this book aimed at young readers helped me sympathize with the many families in our modern era and in our past who are dealing and have dealt with just this sort of loss.
Doing My Part by Teresa R. Funke

2. Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
(Young Adult literature. Fiction. Cybils Award Nominee for Young Adult Fiction (2011), Andre Norton Award Nominee for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (2011))

Lucky Linderman isn’t so lucky. In fact, he’s depressed, and he might be going crazy. He is the target of a particularly pernicious bully. His dad is never home and isn’t that present when he is: his restaurant is his life. Lucky’s mom swims, swims, swims and pretends things are okay. When he sleeps, Lucky visits his grandfather in a Prisoner of War camp in Vietnam. When he wakes from these dreams, he finds physical manifestations of them, which he then hides.
This is the summer where something changes. His mom takes him to stay with relatives (who have a pool) for a few weeks. Lucky makes unlikely friends and an unlikely enemy. He stands up for someone. Connects with his mom in a new way. Faces fears. Faces the ants that constantly mock him.
This books is part dream and part reality, but all excellently and intensely written.

Why It Helps Me Remember
Lucky’s grandfather fought in the Vietnam War, and he never came home. While this story is about much, much more, the Vietnam dream sequences and the impact of the loss of Lucky’s grandfather on him and his own father (the child of the man who didn’t come back from Vietnam) bring the cost of the ultimate sacrifice to life.
Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

3. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness (book 3 in the Chaos Walking Trilogy)
(Young Adult literature. Science Fiction. Teen Buckeye Book Award Nominee (2012), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Young Adult Fantasy (2010), Carnegie Medal in Literature (2011), Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of the Year for Fiction (2010))

War dominates the final book of this trilogy, and many lives are lost.
Since this is book three in a trilogy, please go visit my review of the excellent first book. I don’t want to ruin any of Patrick Ness’s perfect storytelling for you.

Why It Helps Me Remember
While the war in this book happens on a fictional and very unusual planet in the future, Patrick Ness weaves a compelling and realistic story within that frame, and it is a story in which you care about people who are giving their lives in a war. Because of the quality of the writing, you connect deeply with the main characters and care about the people they care about. You see what is happening, how people serve, how they die. It impacts you. I have never been to war, but it is through books like this that I am most able to empathize for those who have lost someone and to see, dimly, what making the ultimate sacrifice might be like.
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

4. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
(Adult. Fiction. Set in New Hampshire and Canada.)
Narrator Johnny Wheelwright’s life is shaped largely by the powerful voice of the tiny Owen Meany, his boyhood friend. Owen dies young, as he’d predicted as a boy, but the narrator never lets go of Owen’s memory. This is the story of their growing up together, of Wheelwright’s odd faith in Owen Meany, and of Wheelwright’s bizarre Canadian adulthood.

Why It Helps Me Remember
The narrator is obsessed with the Vietnam War, and it is because of this book that I have a sense of the scope of lives lost by American soldiers in that war. As odd and imperfect a narrator as Wheelwright is, it is through this book that the costs of that war came to life in my mind in a way they never had in text books or political discussions. Irving has his narrator obsessively tracking the increasing body count as the war goes on and the boys get closer to and past draft age, and that combination of true data mixed with a unique, compelling narrative hit a nerve for me and helped me see the lives lost in that war.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving


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