It is against this background of an America in transition that we will look at the books of youth in transition. Too typically, war is glorified and cannot serve as a metaphor for understanding the difficulties we face as we grow up and must learn to confront all types of conflicts. The following books contain the confrontation between ideals and disillusionments in a time readily available to us.
depicts the coming-of-age of Gene Forrester, the novel’s narrator. Gene has returned to Devon School fifteen years after his graduation; he has returned to relive the events which led to his best friend’s death and to confront the part he played in causing that death.
The novel begins with Gene’s return to the school in 1958; the events related span 1942-1943. The 1942 Summer Session is a special time, a time of a separate peace. The 16-year-olds live in a world of relaxed rules and relative freedom, for they are not yet old enough to be rigorously trained for military service. Adult authority is minimal. Any flaunting of authority takes the form of pranks. The Summer Session is a time for secret societies, pranks, adventures, friendship, and jealousy.
The Winter Session is a time for seriousness, guilt, retribution, reconciliation, and death. World War II has become more real: students have been pressed into public service; some have enlisted. Authority is very much in evidence in the winter session. A military atmosphere brings severity to Devon. Finny, Gene’s friend, can no longer promote his theory that the war is only a story being made up by fat old men. The war is encroaching on Devon.
is readily accessible to eighth-graders because its main theme, friendship, is of the utmost importance to them. We see the growth of friendship between Gene and Finny, two opposites who complement each other. We also see the friendship pass through various stages: competition, complexity, cooperation, betrayal, and reconciliation. There are minor skirmishes with adult authority. Tragedy occurs when, in a quest to establish what is right and just, the students put themselves in a position of authority. Because they face these decisions in their own lives, this is an area which will provoke student discussions and writings.
War is a gray eminence. In the early part of the book, war is a joke, a fable. As the story progresses, war becomes all too real. The inconveniences brought on by rationing and other wartime measures are hardly felt at Devon. The enlistment, breakdown, and escape of Leper, a student who has pretty much kept to himself, make the war all too real to Gene and, consequently, to Finny.
raises issues which my students are usually eager to discuss and, I hope, to write about: What are the limits of friendship? Why might adolescence be portrayed as a time of peace and war? What beliefs do you hold about war? peace? friendship? What school rules do you feel are necessary? unnecessary? What would you issue rules about?
is the most easily approached of the books we’ll read. It is intimate in the sense that it centers on the give-and-take of friendship, its joys and its tragedies. Two characters go on a series of adventures, one of which inadvertently ends in tragedy. The power of reconciliation is illustrated.
offers no monumental events, dramatic conflicts, tidy resolutions. “Nothing happens!” students complain. That precisely is the point: as a depiction of daily life on the homefront, Saroyan’s novel captures the sense of waiting and longing.
We are brought into the homes, schools, clubs, businesses indeed, the lives of the citizens of Ithaca, California. Homer Macauley, a 14 year-old boy, is our guide. Homer is a telegraph messenger; in the course of his work, he experiences and encounters fear, loss, death, comfort, and hope. In the classroom and on the track field, he meets up with social class-consciousness, unfairness, blatant discrimination and a clear-cut vision of what it means to be an American. At home and at work, he experiences the joys and frustrations of close relationships, a supportive atmosphere, a sense of contributing to the well-being of those he loves. The story bears witness to the road sign Saroyan placed on the outskirts of Ithaca: “East, West—Home is Best/Welcome, Stranger.”
The novel touches on the conflicts women experienced during the war years. Mrs. Macauley remains at home in her traditional role; her daughter Bess is gently dissuaded from looking for a job, being told that education will be the key to her betterment. Girls provide platonic distraction and comfort to the soldiers who are transient visitors to Ithaca. Girls are the source of chaste fantasies.
Homer, the protagonist, is a teenager. For perhaps the first time in his life, he is confronting his self. He is very aware that he is now the man in the family; his father is dead and the older brother, Marcus, whom he idolizes is serving in the army. His job is important because it supplements his family’s income and is a vital link in the communications network. It is his job which forces the self-confrontation. In a nightmarish chapter, Homer is pursued by the Messenger of Death. More and more, telegrams became the symbol of despair and death. The despair leads Homer to question his views on the war and the wisdom of those in authority.
The war is a gray eminence. Even the few chapters which focus on Marcus occur on trains or in camp. Soldiers are on leave; combat is something “over there.”
Emphasis is on the common man: the little person leading his/her daily existence. These people are obvious symbols of the good in humankind. My favorite character is Miss Hicks, a dedicated teacher. She sees her career as having been spent in guiding the views and shaping the characters of her students. She is Saroyan’s vehicle for expressing his somewhat heavy-handed definition of an American. The members of the upper-class and those who toady to them are symbols of the bad or, at the very least, the ridiculous.
The uprooted appear throughout the book, be they soldiers, shopkeepers, job-seekers or robbers. Mr. Ara, a grocer, experiences relative ease in his new life in America, yet yearns for Armenia, his native land. He too experiences loneliness, anger, and despair, yet commands his son to be happy. Though America has been good to Mr. Ara, it is not, nor will it ever be, “home” to him—a symbol of peace.
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s
details her attempt to rid herself of a place and what it symbolized. Though she started out to tell the story of the day-to-day life she and her family lived in Manzanar for three-and-a-half years, she realized she’d have to do more: she had to confront her self. The family was very different at the end than at the beginning of its internment. She sees her book as a web of stories: hers, her father’s, her family’s, rather than as political history.
Again, the war remains on the periphery, though it directly and almost immediately affects the Wakatsukis. Though he doesn’t know where Pearl Harbor is, Jeanne’s father quickly realizes he is a man without a country. The land of his birth is at war with the land which has denied him citizenship— even after 35 years’ of residence. This man with no rights look exactly like the enemy. Authority is imposed on the Wakatsukis from the outside and leads to the internal breakdown of the tradition role and authority of the family.
Relocation was viewed by some as a relief, by others as an adventure, and by still others as an outrage. Manzanar was the setting for the breakdown of the family as Wakatsuki knew it: personal privacy was almost nonexistent; family meals could not occur in large communal dining halls; family strength and dignity were eroded.
Wakatsuki gives a good sense of place and detail. The attempts to make the bleak compound that was Manzanar habitable and attractive are well-detailed. The reader also gets a good sense of the daily life: the jobs people took on, the education given, the recreation taken, the pranks played. The valiant attempts to preserve both the idea and the actuality of “family” are among the most poignant parts of the book, as is Jeanne’s search for attention from people who are not playmates or family members.
The latter sections of the book, which deal with Jeanne’s assessment of her father and with the “double impulse,” will appeal most strongly to my students because it is part of their adolescent experience. Eighth-graders spend a lot of time thinking about and dealing with parents and other authority figures. Jeanne’s analysis of her father, from his arrival in California and his efforts to obtain a commercial fishing license to his anger over the Loyalty Oath in Manzanar, is unflinching.
Jeanne’s concept of the “double impulse” makes it possible for students to accept their own ambivalence. The urge to disappear was often in conflict with the desperate desire to be accepted by peers. This conflict plagued Jeanne for years after her departure from Manzanar, intensified by her need to be seen as an individual, rather than as one of “the Japanese,” for such thinking led to the very existence of Manzanar. This desire to be seen as individuals is terribly important to my students. Our study of
will help them begin to establish their selves.
will have positive effects on my students and on life in my classroom. Personal growth and awareness will be at the center of our reading, our discussions and our writing assignments. They’ll measure themselves against Homer as they read
My students will share in Gene’s development of a sense of responsibility in
They’ll experience the courage it takes Jeanne to confront her self in
. This unit may very well be an important step for many of my students in the development and expression of self.