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Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 11 years, 4 months ago

28 May 2002 SONNY'S WAR by Valerie Hobbs, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, September 2002


" 'Sonny--?'

'I don't want to talk about Vietnam, Cory.'


Hot wind swirled around us, restless and unpredictable.  You could hear it moaning in the distance.

'I killed people.'


'That's what you do in the war. You kill people.' "


All that I can recall of World History in tenth grade (1970-71) is discussing the New York Times. In Spanish. I was in an immersion program--half my day was in Spanish--and the young, new teacher who taught the World History (in Spanish) class had just received his teaching credential.  The next year he didn't return--I think he went back to grad school.  But with his being of draft age, while teaching World History at the height of the Viet Nam War, he had us spend the better part of that school year discussing the War, in Spanish, with the assistance of the NY Times.  By the spring I was one of those he'd signed up to board a caravan of buses headed to a massive antiwar rally in Washington, DC, where I had the unforgettable experience of standing on the steps of the Capitol and listening to Coretta Scott King.


That teacher forever changed my life. (Even though my Spanish sucks these days.)


Valerie Hobbs has written an exceptional story, set in 1968-69, in which a teacher passionately opposed to the Vietnam War changes the life of a student.  Corin (Cory) is a fourteen-year-old whose father has suddenly died, and whose brother, Sonny, decides to make their late father proud of him by joining the Army.  Corin's world is shattered by the departure of her big brother.


"I loved Sonny with horse blinders on.  Even if he didn't have a lot of friends, nobody was as smart or good-looking or as brave as my brother.  He was my lighthouse, my path through the woods, my best friend.

He believed in me, even when he didn't believe in himself."


As Sonny heads halfway around the world, Corin heads into high school and meets Lawrence, who has just been hired as a substitute for the elderly history teacher who'd died at the end of summer vacation.  Lawrence is young, very tall, with long blond hair, blue work shirts and Jesus sandals.  He requires his students to either read the LA Times or listen to Walter Cronkite, and then write about the news every night.  He starts them debating.  He spends class periods sitting cross-legged atop his desk, and then spends lunch periods standing mutely outside the cafeteria windows next to a sign that reads WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER.  His arms are crossed with hands tacitly inviting others to join his protest.


Of course, there are those who protest The War, and those who protest Lawrence.


In addition to Sonny, Corin, and Lawrence, another memorable character we meet is Corin's mother.  She begins the story appearing lost and powerless after her husband's death, but her quiet determination to take charge of her own life is a fascinating transformation:


" 'I don't know why we don't go to church anymore,' Mom said, walking home.  'Why don't we start going again?'

'Where?  Saint Thomas?

'Why not?'

Sometimes she would sound more like a person than a mom.

'You want to be Catholic now?'

'Well, maybe.  I love that little church, don't you?'

'Well, sure. But you just can't get up one day and just be a Catholic.'  Sometimes my mom didn't seem to know all the rules, I don't know why, since she was almost forty years old.

'Well, I don't know why you can't,' she said.  'I think it should be entirely up to a person what he or she believes.  It's a simple matter of conscience.'  She did that little head-cock thing, like she was on her high horse, as Dad used to say."


There is also a touch of magic sprinkled into the story, further setting this story apart from other works of historic fiction.  That is not to say that the author fails in any way to give readers a vivid sense of the times--the daily chronology of the war, an authentic snapshot of small town southern California, complete with the hot cars and cold shakes, and a scattering of the slang, slogans, and styles of the Sixties.


"...and you know that peace can only be won

when we've blown 'em all to kingdom come..."--Country Joe and the Fish


SONNY'S WAR is an excellent coming of age tale that will enlighten readers as to the roots of what was happening in the late '60s, and might well give kids some sense of why the reverberations of those exciting and confusing times continue to linger on more than thirty years later.


Richie Partington




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