What if the US hadn’t limited their army to men during World War II?
That’s the entire premise of this book. We follow three girls through the book. Rio, a girl from an average family in California, whose sister has been killed fighting the Japanese; Frangie, a black girl from a family in Oklahoma, who needs money to help her family and dreams of being a doctor; and Rainy, a Jewish girl from New York whose brother is in the army fighting the Japanese, who wants to fight the Germans herself.
I loved Frangie at once. She is caught between compassion and love and the war and the role that she is “supposed” to fill in life. She is gentle and kind and guileless. Even the reason she joins the army is a compassionate one, and she decides to dedicate herself to the war effort as a medic. Her pastor tells her that even as a medic, she is contributing to the killing; but even so, he cannot outright tell her not to join the army, so join she does. I knew at once that this was a character whose journey through the horrors of war would be poignant, and though I was a little frustrated at the lack of time dedicated to her, I wasn’t disappointed.
Rainy took a little more time than Frangie, but she had won me over within two chapters. Rainy is ferocious. She is determined to contribute to the war effort, and though her hatred of the Germans is palpable on the page, she doesn’t dwell on that hatred. She channels it into action, and defies every sexist and every anti-Semite who stands in her way by excelling.
Rio took about 90% of the book to win me over. This was a bit of a problem for me, because Rio’s story also takes up the most time in the book. The thing is, I had no problems with her in the first chapter. My problems started taking hold in the second chapter and grew as her story progressed. From her seldom-mentioned loathing for “Japs” who killed her sister to her impulsive decision to enlist with barely any comprehension of what she was doing just to impress a love interest and in response to her friend’s goading, she began to feel more of a caricature than a character. The further her story unfolded, the less invested I felt, for one resounding reason: I kept on thinking, “I feel like I’ve read this story.”
Here’s the thing. Each of the three girls is, in fact, a stereotype. The church-going black girl with money problems. The savvy, clever Jewish girl with a quiet angry streak. The timid, blushing white girl who follows her friend and beau into the army and discovers an unexamined ferocity inside herself.
I think it was just that it was far too easier for me to pin down the stereotypes of Rio’s story than of the other two. Rio’s story kept reminding me of the likes of Ender (from Ender’s Game) and Katniss (from the Hunger Games), and the love triangle that developed in her side of the story did nothing to avail me of my concerns. Eventually, just as I was despairing of ever finding anything redeeming in her story, it happened: Rio’s superior calls her a killer (much to Rio’s shock and dismay) and hints at what this will mean for her after the war while emphasizing that right now, killers are what they need.
While I was skeptical of Rio’s superior’s vision of how her life would unfold after the war, I very much liked that scene and it won me over.
The other thing that bothered me was the racial and gender discrimination. There was, of course, a whole lot of it. But it wasn’t the mere existence of this that bothered me. There was racism against all non-whites and women. That was period-typical, and I applaud Grant as an author for not shying away from this reality. What bothered me was the differences in the portrayals. The racism against blacks, against Jews, and against women was written in a way that was clearly meant to enrage the reader. On the other hand, that against “Krauts” and “Japs” was less so. Near the end of the book, I felt that this was somewhat addressed when a generally deplorable character calls a non-Japanese east Asian character “Jap” and we were clearly supposed to feel upset about that; that soothed me somewhat. It is a war book for teens, so addressing the moral ambiguity of war at large, the damage done by an “us” versus “them” mentality is perhaps too much to ask. So this is a point that I try to distance myself from in my overall assessment of the book.
I did enjoy it. I did think it was exceedingly well-written. It was a strong premise, executed very well in three different ways through three different stories.