Reading for Fun: History Through Young Eyes

The Green Glass SeaWhen I think about World War II, I usually think about it through the eyes of my parents’ generation: the young adults who went to war and went to work to keep the country moving.

My father was running sheep on a ranch near San Angelo, Texas, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He sold his stock quickly and enlisted in the Army Air Corps (now the Air Force). Later he fought in North Africa and was part of the invasion of Italy.

My mother graduated from college during the war, having been the first woman editor White Sands, Red Menaceof the Texas Tech student newspaper. She landed a job as a reporter at the San Angelo Standard-Times. Wartime offered opportunities for women.

I never gave much thought to what the war years would have been like for kids. Fortunately, Ellen Klages did think about that: She’s written two award-winning books about the war through the eyes of two girls whose parents work on the Manhattan Project.

And perhaps the best part of The Green Glass Sea and Blue Skies, Red Menace is that Ellen has an intuitive understanding of (or perhaps a good memory for) how kids think, especially kids who don’t quite fit in anywhere.

The Green Glass Sea takes place in the middle of World War II in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where 11-year-old Dewey Kerrigan’s father is working on the bomb. Dewey has spent most of her life with her grandmother — her mother left when she was a baby — but now she’s getting to live with her father, who can answer her odd questions and doesn’t have any problem with her interests, which run along the lines of making things and learning science. Still, at school she’s the odd kid. As the backdrop to Dewey’s story, we get the intense work on the atomic bomb — the secrecy, the long hours, the tests.

Blue Skies, Red Menace is set in Alamogordo, New Mexico, just after the war. Dewey, whose father has died, is now living with her friend Suze Gordon and Suze’s parents. Suze’s father is working on rocket launches at White Sands nearby.  Suze’s mother, a nuclear chemist, has no work here, and is working with other scientists who are frightened by what the bomb means. Dewey and Suze — who’s an artist — are finding their own paths through the eighth grade in a sleepy New Mexico town.

The world of the war and the 40s comes to life in these books, from the cocktails and cigarettes to the comic books to the bigotry against Mexican Americans to the Cold War, all seen from the perspective of young girls.

These books are aimed at middle readers — not quite YA — but they’re a very good read for people of any age. In fact, I’ve been thinking I might get them for my uncle, who was, in fact, a kid during World War II. He’d have been a few years younger than Dewey and Suze, but I bet he’d remember New Mexico from that time.

Given the subject matter, I think even boys who are convinced all girls have cooties (do kids still use that word?) would like these books. And I’m sure their parents would like them, too.

Brewing Fine FictionI have two essays in the lastest Book View Cafe anthology, Brewing Fine Fiction. My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are available on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s. The free, chapter-by-chapter version of Changeling starts here. And check out my stories in the Book View Cafe anthologies The Shadow Conspiracy, Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.
And you can also read my latest story — “Or We Will All Hang Separately” — on Futurismic.



Reading for Fun: History Through Young Eyes — 6 Comments

  1. I need to get and read those two books, since I’m of the same generation as the young heroines.

  2. They’re wonderful books (my daughter constituted herself as Ellen’s No. 1 Fan, and is one of the dedicatees of White Sands, Red Menace–see where dedicated fandom gets you if you’re young and cute?) and Ellen did a breathtaking amount of research. She also carries a piece of Trinitite (the green glass created from fused desert sand at the Trinity test site) with her to school visits.

  3. I read The Green Glass Sea to my middle school students the year it came out. They loved it–though I had one adult listener complain that it had too much drinking and tobacco smoking in it. The kids didn’t focus on that, but on the story–and they were utterly fascinated when I’d stop and explain the cultural differences between then and now (these were rural kids, and not all had TV access).

  4. Joycemocha, I assume those adults are too young to remember how much people drank and smoked in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. The smoking and drinking by adults in the books is one of the things that makes them accurate depictions of the time.

    I’m not a fan of smoking — my mother died of emphysema. But she started smoking at 15 and smoked three packs a day for most of her life. If I tell a story about her and leave her cigarettes out of it, I’m rewriting history.

  5. Historical fiction has to be true to its era–my mother died from smoking-related diseases, and I still have secondary smoke lung damage because both of my parents smoked when I was small–and smoking and drinking were accepted parts of adult behavior in those days (my mother locked herself into the bathroom at her sorority and smoked until she vomited, because she wasn’t allowed to drink and she wanted something that marked her as “grown up”). Part of what makes the book work is the marvelous divide between the grown up world (including the smoking and drinking) and the kid’s world.

  6. Nancy, Thanks for spotlighting Ellen’s work. That’s two more books for me to actually read, instead of always promising myself I’ll read them.