VOYA - Carlisle K. Webber
During a road trip from California to Florida with their grandmother Mare, sisters Talitha and Octavia hear about Mare's extraordinary history. In 1944, at age seventeen, Mare ran away from her backwater Alabama town and joined the Women's Army Corps. After lying about her age and passing a written exam, Mare went on to become a member of the 6888th African American battalion. Through basic training, she gained physical and emotional strength. During the course of the war, she served in the United States, Scotland, and France. She tells her story through oral narrative and with letters she has written to her sister. Although she does not glamorize any part of army life, Mare narrates both her good and bad times in the service. Mare is strong, stubborn, and self-relianttraits the reader can see and admire in her granddaughters. Readers may be surprised to learn about the level of discrimination Mare faced for being a woman as well as African American, even in the armed forces. Davis gives both major and minor character very distinct traits, making them memorable. She also has an ear for dialect and the speech of the 1940s, although the modern dialogue feels stilted in places. By focusing on vivid characterizations rather than long descriptions, Davis creates a work of historical fiction that even non-historians can enjoy. Reviewer: Carlisle K. Webber
School Library Journal
Gr 7-10–On a parent-mandated cross-country road trip with Mere, their unpredictable grandmother, 15-year-old Octavia and 17-year-old Tali make the transformation from complaining, self-absorbed teens to observant, supportive family members. Mere promises not to smoke if the sisters promise not to use earphones on their way to a family reunion. And then she begins to tell her life story. As the miles pass from California across the southern states, the girls become intrigued with memories of Mere’s harsh childhood of domestic work and her struggle to protect herself and younger sister from their widowed mother’s lecherous boyfriend. Mere’s account of her war years is full of historical detail and lively personal anecdotes about the training, treatment, duties, and social life in her African-American regiment of the Women’s Army Corps both on assignment in the U.S. and in the European Theater during 1944 and 1945. Octavia and Tali write postcards home to family and friends revealing their adolescent reactions to what they see and hear. Their bickering subsides as they begin to understand the experiences, people, and decisions that shaped their grandmother and the family bond they all share. Told in alternating chapters of “Then” and “Now,” this contemporary intergenerational story resounds with mutual exasperation, criticism, discovery, and humor. Octavia and Tali are believable and at times devious as they try to escape Mere’s scrutiny. A steady travelogue, realistic banter, memorable characters, and moments of tension, insight, and understanding make this an appealing selection.–Gerry Larson, Durham School of the Arts, NC
A summer road trip serves as frame for the story of Octavia and Tali's extraordinary grandmother. Born on a farm just before the Great Depression, Marey Lee Boyen dreams of getting herself and her younger sister Josephine as far away from Bay Slough, Ala., as possible-especially when their mother's boyfriend turns a lustful eye toward them both. After Josephine is sent away to Aunt Shirley in Philadelphia, Mare lies about her age and joins the Women's Army Corps at the height of World War II. As Octavia and Tali travel with Mare back home to Bay Slough, readers experience Pfc. Boyen's journey from basic training to extended field-service training, as she bonds with a remarkable group of young African-American women. Once her company, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, ships out to Europe, Mare and her fellow GIs process mail for the front lines in England and France. The parallel travel narratives are masterfully managed, with postcards from Octavia and Tali to the folks back home in San Francisco signaling the shift between "then" and "now." Absolutely essential reading. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2009:
"Absolutely essential reading."
Read an Excerpt
It's just a sporty red car parked across our driveway, but when I see it, my stomach plummets. It's my grandmother.
Already, I hate this summer. Usually, I laze around with my best friends, Eremasi and Rye, for the first few weeks until it's too late to get a job and then find a babysitting gig or two to keep my parents happy, but this year, my parents jumped in and planned my summer for me. Yesterday was the last day of school. Last night, Mom pulled out the suitcases and made us pack. We're going to some kind of a reunion--with my grandmother. Today.
My grandmother isn't at all normal. She doesn't read mystery novels, or sing in a church choir, or knit, or sew. She doesn't do the Jumbles in the newspaper, and she hates crosswords. She isn't at all soft or plump, doesn't smell like cinnamon, pumpkin bread, or oatmeal cookies. My grandmother, Ms. Marey Lee Boylen, is not the cookie type.
She wears flippy auburn wigs, stiletto shoes, and padded push-up bras. Once, when we were little, my sister, Talitha, and I found a pair of panties in her bathroom with a fake butt. (We kept snickering, "Fanny pants!" at each other and busting up all afternoon. My mother finally made us go sit in the car.)
My grandmother has long, fake nails and a croaky hoarse drawl, and she's always holding a long, skinny cigarette--unlit, otherwise my dad will have a fit--between her fingers. She's loud and bossy and she drinks bourbon with lemon juice at dinner. She has a low-slung red coupe, and Dad says she drives like a bat out of hell. She's almost eighty, and she still lives by herself in a town house stuck on a cliff near the Golden Gate Bridge. She takes the bus so she can avoid parking tickets and walks everywhere else on strappy high-heeled sandals.
Our journalism teacher, Ms. Crase, would say that my grandmother is colorful, like somebody from a book. I say my grandmother is scary, mostly because I never know what she's going to do next.
She talks to strangers. She asks questions--totally nosy ones--as if just because she's old, she can afford to be rude. She says what she thinks, she changes her mind every five minutes, and she laughs at me--a lot. She and I are completely different types of people.
I like predictability. I like maps, dictionaries, and directions. I like lists of things to do, knowing the answer, and seeing how everything fits. My grandmother is definitely one of those people who thrive on chaos and instability. She's what my mother calls a free spirit and what I call completely random.
She can't even go by a normal name. No one calls my grandmother Grandma or Granny or even Nana. When my parents got married, she said she didn't want anyone _calling her a mother-in-law. When my sister was born, my grandmother told Mom she didn't want anyone calling her a grandmother, either. They finally decided that the grandchildren were supposed to call her Mare, and that's what we all call her now, even my dad.
Mare. Mere. Like the French word for "mother." Which is just another example of how Mare is completely bizarre--I mean, we're not even French. And she's not our mother.
So going with her to a reunion is bad enough, but to make matters worse, we don't even really know where we're going. Mare has some whacked idea that it's more of an adventure if we just get in the car and drive east. And yeah, I said "car." See, since 2001, Mare won't fly--so we have to drive ALL ACROSS THE UNITED STATES.
In the middle of the baking-hot summer.
My grandmother, my sister, and me, all trapped in one car.
I'm not the only one who hates this idea. You should have heard my sister.
"What? Us?" Tali's voice had climbed. "Why do we have to go, Mom? They're Dad's relatives."
"They're your relatives, too," my mother reminded her. "And, Talitha, it's a long drive back east. It's not something your grandmother should attempt alone, and you know your dad can't take the time off of work until the end of June."
"Can't we just fly?" I groaned.
Mom shook her head. "You know Mare doesn't trust planes. She wants to see her people, so she's going to get in her car and drive to them."
"Oh, nice," Tali sighed. "This is just how I wanted to spend my summer break. With the slow and the dead."
"Talitha Marie," my mother had said in that dry-ice voice she uses. "Enough."
Tali had given my mother one last look and then yelled for Dad. But no matter who she whined to or argued with, the end result is the same: tomorrow, my sister and I are starting out on a 2,340-mile drive across the United States to somewhere in Alabama.
So much for summer vacation.
I'm not eager to see Mare, and neither is Tali, judging from the fact that she's sitting on the front porch with her backpack.
"Hey, what's Mare doing here already?" I ask, dropping my bag of library books on the step next to her. "Didn't she say we weren't leaving till eleven-thirty?"
Talitha shrugs, busily sending a text to one of her best friends, either Suzanne or Julie. "Don't know, don't care."
"Why are you waiting out here?"
"I'm not waiting. I'm texting, duh." Tali keeps her eyes on her cell.
I push up my sunglasses. "Well, if Mare wants somebody to wash her car, it's your turn."
"Fine. Last time she paid me twenty bucks."
"What?! She's never paid me anything!"
Tali glances up, her dark eyes barely visible above the edge of her blue-tinted sunglasses. "So? You should've asked."
Before I can answer, the front door swings open. "Girls, why are you outside? Mare's here."
From the Hardcover edition.