This is the second Alan Gratz multi-perspective historical fiction novel I’m reviewing for its inclusion of a Muslim character. While in Refugee it seemed a natural choice to include a Muslim family, I was completely shocked that he would feature one in a WWII D-Day novel. With numerous storylines spread over 322 pages the book is quick, fast paced, intense and emotional. An enjoyable read for history lovers and curious kids fifth grade and up, it is an AR 5.6 and older kids will benefit from it too.
The characters and timeline are fictionalized to all take place on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as the Allied forces and French resistance come together to storm German occupied France on the beaches of Normandy. Many of the details do come from history though as detailed in the Author Notes at the end of the book.
The book starts out following Dee, a German national who left for America to escape the Nazi’s and is now returning in a Higgins boat to fight them. Knowing no one will understand, including his friend Sid, a Jew from New York, he keeps this knowledge to himself and focuses on the task ahead.
Samira and her mother are the focus of the next mission and highlight the role of the French Resistance, the Maquis. What makes their story more meaningful is that they are spies with the French Resistance, but they are French Algerians, not really a part of France at all, and they are Muslim. In Samira’s back story we learn how she must remove her hijab and how she is treated different at school because Algeria and France are at odds. When her mother is taken by the Nazis before she can deliver the message to the Resistance, Samira vows to do it and get her mother back as well.
19-year-old James from Winnipeg Canada is a paratrooper who volunteered for combat to feel empowered after years of bullying. His buddy in the story Sam is a Cree Indian from Quebec, who has few rights at home, and hopes to have more success in the military.
Medic Henry is scrambling along on the beach helping anyone and everyone he can. Having left behind a segregated US, even the military has reservations about African Americans saving and serving. As he performs one heroic act after another being questioned and doubted and insulted all along the way, readers see how ridiculous and infuriating racism is on every level.
We meet Private Bill Richards who drives a Sherman tank and is following in his fathers WWI footsteps. But who is unfortunately killed before reaching Bayeux. And finally we meet Monique Marchand, a French 13 year old girl, who gets caught up in the invasion because she left her swim suit in the beach hut the day before and has returned to retrieve it. Determined to do something other than cower in fear, she starts helping fallen soldiers and meets up with American journalist Dorothy, a strong woman determined to not be stopped on the basis of gender.
All the story lines criss and cross as the invasion is a chaotic mess and everyone is dropped, disembarked, or arriving in the wrong place at the wrong time. Surviving the day is an immediate challenge and not one that everyone will succeed at. The larger success of the mission will depend on some lucky breaks and a whole lot of teamwork.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the story somehow isn’t political at all in the traditional war story, war strategy sense. But the strength at least for me, wasn’t the horrific battle at hand, which is truly violent and abhorrent, but the relationships between the people. The realizing what is driving them, what matters and more importantly how hard our prejudices are. The larger story of the Allies shows British, Americans, and Canadians coming together to defeat he Nazis, but yet, a girl, an African American, and a Cree are treated as “other” irregardless of how beneficial they are even in matters of life and death.
As for the story of Samira, she is a tough girl, both clever and brave. To have a Muslim in an American/westerm story of D-Day and a young girl at that, to me was pretty remarkable. There isn’t mention of faith or anything other than that she is told to take off her scarf and continues to wear a small kerchief on her head anyway, but for Muslim kids all over, this character and how she behaves will spark a sense of extra pride in the Allies success over Hitler, just as the other minority characters will for their representation in such a dramatic event.
There is a bit of mild profanity. There is violence and death, and blood, not too bad, but the point is clear, the beach isn’t pretty.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think this book would be a great supplement to any WWII history lesson. There are great resources at the end, and maps at the beginning and a high energy, short chaptered book that doesn’t skimp on character building or war intensity.
Author’s website: http://www.alangratz.com