In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Combat, sharks and justice

Dear Annie,

I'm starting to write this as I listen to your youtube Danse Macabre link.  Halloween music.

I'm doing one of those radical turns of subject today, veering over to the death-and-macabre side of things for older kids.  I got a note from someone I haven't seen in a few years, the daughter of one of my father's (your grandfather's) oldest friends.  She was wondering about books for her 12 year-old son who's a big non-fiction reader, especially history.  She mentioned war stories, and somehow she made me think of a book I recommend fairly frequently:
Left for Dead
, by Pete Nelson.  I'm sort of stunned I didn't think of this one when we were trying to come up with kid-appropriate combat stories.  The subtitle of the book is "A Young Man's Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis."  The Navy cruiser Indianapolis delivered components of the atomic bombs to the Mariana Islands in the summer of 1945, and on its return trip was torpedoed and sunk.  Distress calls were not reacted to, and hundreds of men ended up in the water for four days before the survivors were rescued.  880 men died, many of them killed by sharks as they tried to stay afloat.  The captain was court-martialed for his handling of the ship when it was under attack, although the trial was controversial and some saw him as the scapegoat for Navy incompetence.  He eventually committed suicide in 1968.  In the 1975 movie Jaws, one character gives a grim four-minute speech about surviving the ordeal of the sinking (shark attacks being the theme here).

Twenty-two years after Jaws came out, Hunter Scott, a sixth grader in Florida saw the movie and started asking questions about the Indianapolis.  His sixth-grade history project ended up tracking down some of the surviving crew, publicizing the injustices, and four years later, in 2001, leading to the exoneration of the captain. 

The book tells the stories of the ship and sailors, and of Scott's investigation.  Some of it is within the context of Florida conservative politics, but it's an amazing story -- two amazing stories.  It's also well enough written that a fair number of customers have come back to say how much they liked it.  It's got combat and death and scariness; incompetence and accusations and cover-ups; and a kid with curiosity, brains and perseverance.  And in the end, there's justice -- in a too-late (but still triumphant) kind of way.



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