Missing in Action

Missing in Action

5.0 1
by Dean Hughes

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Dirty. Lazy. Good-For-Nothing.

Jay Thacker is used to being called names because his dad is half Navajo. But he gets a chance at a new life and a new identity when he and his mom move from Salt Lake City to the small town of Delta. In Delta, Jay's grandfather is a beloved and well-respected man. And in Delta, Jay can convince everyone, and maybe


Dirty. Lazy. Good-For-Nothing.

Jay Thacker is used to being called names because his dad is half Navajo. But he gets a chance at a new life and a new identity when he and his mom move from Salt Lake City to the small town of Delta. In Delta, Jay's grandfather is a beloved and well-respected man. And in Delta, Jay can convince everyone, and maybe even himself, that his dad, who is Missing in Action as he fights in World War II, is really a POW and military hero, and not gone forever.

But the bubble Jay has built around himself begins to burst when he has to confront his prejudices toward Ken, his new friend. Ken, the Japanese American from the nearby Topaz internment camp. Ken, the Jap. Sure Ken has been coaching Jay in baseball, bringing him one step closer to his dream of playing in the major leagues, and has also been coaching him in the latest dance moves, bringing him one step closer to the prettiest girl in town. But how can Jay learn to trust Ken when there is a war on?

As the summer wears on and Jay finds himself growing up a little faster than he expected, he learns to look at some truths that had previously been impossible to face. Truths about his father, about Ken, and about himself, too.

In this understated and moving story about an unlikely friendship, Dean Hughes provides a glimpse at the choices a boy must make as he decides what kind of man he'll one day be.

Editorial Reviews

Highly Recommended Library Media Connection
“[A] wonderful novel that is sure to appeal on many levels…the issues explored will make many think.”
Kirkus Reviews
Jay's dad has been declared Missing in Action in the Pacific during World War II, so he and his mom have moved from Salt Lake City to small-town Utah, where his mother's family lives. Life there is unsettling, especially when his mother's men friends appear. Jay finds new buddy Gordy's derogatory references to his partial Navajo heritage upsetting but stays silent so he can play baseball. His grandfather's status as an elder of the Mormon church helps, but it isn't until he works on the farm with Ken, a release worker from a Japanese internment camp, that Jay begins to see the bigger picture of what matters and what doesn't. Many forms of prejudice appear in the narrative, with thoughtlessness and injustice intertwined. Navajo spiritual elements combine with Jay's Mormon faith in a delicate balancing act. Hughes manages to pull it all together for an ending that is touching and somewhat realistic. The plot serves the theme well, as events in Jay's life are illustrated by multiple instances of bias. Subtle and engaging. (Historical fiction. 8-12)
Publishers Weekly
Set in Utah during WWII, Hughes's (Search and Destroy) emotionally honest coming-of-age story follows the conflicted thoughts of 12-year-old Jay, who moves from Salt Lake City to a small town and contends with the casual racism prevalent among his new friends (“lazy Indian” stereotypes are common, and the boys nickname Jay “Chief” after learning his father is half Navajo). Jay's abusive father has been missing for months after his ship was torpedoed in the Pacific, and introspective, sensitive Jay awaits his improbable return with the hope that everything will improve once his family is reunited. When Jay's grandfather gives him a farm job alongside 17-year-old Ken, a fun-loving Japanese-American from California who has been relocated with his family to an internment camp, they become friends, and Jay has to confront his own prejudices (before meeting Ken, his knowledge of Japanese people was limited to unsympathetic portrayals in the movies and war posters of “ugly little yellow guys with glasses”). Hughes pens a candid and dynamic tale that illuminates the complexities of discrimination and the power of friendship. Ages 10-14. (Mar.)
School Library Journal
Gr 6–8—Hughes tackles a multitude of issues in this intriguing yet uneven World War II-era novel. Although Jay Thacker's part-Navajo heritage immediately marks him as "different" in his new town, his baseball skills and his grandfather's standing in the local Mormon community soften barriers in Delta, UT. The 12-year-old's newfound baseball buddies quickly reveal their prejudices against Native Americans, nicknaming him "Chief" and discussing their parents' views that Indians are lazy alcoholic thieves. Jay's own latent prejudices also surface when he learns that his grandfather has hired a young Japanese-American farmhand from the Topaz internment camp. Much to Jay's surprise, Ken wants to join the army once he turns 18 and has a gift for baseball, which leads to him becoming Jay's unofficial coach. Suspicion over Jay's friendship with Ken erupts at a teen social, leading to a runaway attempt by Jay. Although serious issues of Native American prejudice, family violence, Japanese-American internment, and homophobia are raised, the story ends too idealistically and neatly. Rather than focusing on one central theme, multiple situations and issues are juggled to a less-than-satisfactory end. Jay's mixed feelings toward his own ethnic heritage and his initial misconceptions about Japanese Americans are believable and realistic. Recommended where Hughes's novels are popular and as an additional purchase for multicultural collections.—Jennifer Schultz, Fauquier County Public Library, Warrenton, VA

Product Details

Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Missing in Action

  • THE BOYS WALKED OVER TO Main Street together. Gordy kept talking the whole time—asking him about Salt Lake City, the Great Salt Lake, all kinds of things. And then, when they reached Second West, the street with the nicest houses, Jay said good-bye. His grandma and grandpa had a house on that street. It was old but big—a lot bigger than any place he’d lived in before. That was okay, but sometimes Grandpa tried to act like he was his dad, not telling him what to do, but asking him all about everything.

    Everything here was different. He didn’t like it much so far. Grandma was nice, but he’d heard her talking to Mom about his dad, saying things that weren’t exactly right. His dad was a good ballplayer. And he was funny, always making jokes and everything. Grandma didn’t know about things like that. She didn’t have to be saying things about him.

    When he got back to the house, his mom was sitting out on the porch. “Jay, you promised me you’d be home by nine o’clock,” she said. She sounded upset. That’s how she was a lot lately.

    He stepped up onto the porch. “What time is it?” he asked.

    His mom was wearing slacks—something Grandpa didn’t like very much—and her hair was loose, hanging down her back. Everyone said how pretty she was, and Jay thought maybe she was, but she didn’t look at all like him. He had black hair, and she had reddish brown hair and green eyes. She was tall for a woman, and thin, and he was thick through the body, like his dad. “It’s a quarter to ten. You’re forty-five minutes late.”

    “It seems like it’s still early.”

    “That’s because the sun stays up forever. I just hate setting the clock forward two hours.” She glanced over at Grandma, who was sitting next to her, both of them on white wicker chairs.

    The crickets had started in, chirping loud, but the sun wasn’t gone yet, not all the way.

    Grandma was nodding. “I know what you mean. When the sun finally goes down it’s time to go to bed, and it’s still hot as blazes.” She fanned herself with her hand, the way she always did. Mom and Grandma said the same things to each other every night.

    It was true about the heat, though. The middle of Utah was worse than Salt Lake, which was up by the mountains. Delta was in a flat place, with no mountains very close. In the afternoon there wasn’t a cool spot anywhere, not even in the shade.

    “You need a wristwatch, Jay.”

    He looked at the screen door and saw his grandpa standing there, sort of hidden by the dark screen. “Walk into my office and I’ll give you one I don’t use,” Grandpa said.

    “That’s good,” said Mom. “And then you’ll have no more excuses. I’m not going to have this, Jay—you making promises and then running around all hours. This might be a little town, but there’s still bad kids you can fall in with. What have you been doing?”

    “Playing ball.”

    “Who with?”

    “I don’t know. A bunch of boys.”

    “What were their names?”

    “Gordy and Lew and Eldred. I walked back into town with those three.”

    “They’re okay, Louise,” Grandpa said. “Gordy’s the Linebaugh boy. You know his family. And it was probably Lewis Larsen, Jack’s son. And little ol’ Eldred Parsons; he’s as good a boy as you’ll ever find. His family just barely gets by, but they’re good people.”

    “That’s all well and good. But you know how people talk down here, and you know the first thing they’ll say about Jay. When I tell him to come in by a certain time, I want him to do it.”

    “What is it you think they’re going to say?” Grandpa was asking.

    “You know very well. He looks like his dad, and you know what people think about that.”

    That made Jay mad, but he only said, “I’ll come home at nine from now on.” Then he walked on into the house.

    Grandpa had a room he called his office. It had been a bedroom once, when all the kids had been home—eight of them. His mom was the baby of the family, and Grandpa was over seventy.

    Grandpa stepped to his desk and opened a drawer. “Everyone’s wearing these wristwatches now. A salesman gave me one to try out, but I never remember to look at the thing. I always reach for my chain to pull my pocket watch out. I finally just stuck this thing in here. Do you want it?”

    Grandpa wound it and set the time, and then handed it to Jay. It was silver, with a leather band. He watched the second hand sweep past silver dots instead of numbers. It looked nice, but he didn’t want to wear it when he was playing ball. He took it, though, and he told Grandpa, “Thanks.”

    “So did you have fun with those boys tonight?”


    He didn’t tell about the ball that had hit him, but his throat still hurt when he swallowed.

    “Do you think you’re going to like living down here with us?”

    “It should be all right.”

    “You’ll get so you’ll like everything after a while. It’s just a little different from what you’re used to.”

    He nodded.

    “Well, if I were you, I’d go in and take a bath—so you won’t be so hot when you go to bed.”


    “I don’t mean you have to. I was just thinking that might be what you’d want to do.”


    After he walked out, he wished he’d said more. He liked Grandpa all right. He just didn’t know what to say to him. And he didn’t want him asking so many questions, the way he did sometimes. About Salt Lake and his dad and everything.

    •  •  •

    He played ball the next few nights, but he didn’t talk much with anyone. Even when the boys played in teams and he had to wait for his turn at bat, most of the boys didn’t say much to him. He never had been able to think of much to talk about. But Gordy never stopped talking.

    He and Gordy were sitting next to each other on the grass one night when Gordy poked him with his elbow and said, “Hey, Chief, you ever seen a naked girl?”

    Jay shook his head.

    “We did. Me and Lew. We snuck up on some girls skinny-dipping down at the canal. We watched ’em for a while, and then we started hollering that we could see ’em, and they about drowned trying to stay under the water. But it didn’t matter. They didn’t have much of anything anyway.”

    Jay didn’t know what to say.

    “I seen my sister once too, just by accident. Now that I know what a girl’s supposed to look like, I know it ain’t like those flat-chested girls we seen down at the canal.”

    “What about Elaine Gleed?” Lew asked. “She’s not so flat.”

    “What are you looking at her for? She likes me.”

    “You’re the only one who thinks so.”

    “Yeah. Me and her. We’re the only two.” Gordy turned back to him. “Hey, you wanna go out to the desert with us in the morning? Me and Lew and some other guys are going out real early before it gets hot.”

    “I can’t,” he said. “I’ve got to work for my grandpa, at his farm.”

    “Is that what you’ve been doing every day?”

    “No. Tomorrow’s my first day.”

    “You must be starting up to cut hay.”

    “It’s already cut.”

    “Then you’ll be raking, and after that, hauling. Most of us do some of that. That’s why we’re going in the morning—before our dads get us busy doing the same thing.”

    Actually, he had done next to nothing since he’d been in Delta—except wait to head over to the ballpark late in the day. His mom had taken a job already, at D. Stevens department store, and Grandma was the only one home all day. He talked to Grandma sometimes. She liked to gab a little too much, but she laughed a lot. And sometimes he could think of things to tell her. But mostly he had read old comic books that some of his uncles had left behind, and he had tried throwing pitches at a big cottonwood tree out back, just to see if he could get better at throwing a ball where he meant to throw it—and maybe get so he could be a pitcher.

    That morning, at the breakfast table, Grandpa had said, “Jay, I’ve got a boy from out at Topaz working for me at the farm. I’ve tried to get out there and help him a little, but I can’t seem to find much time. I—”

    “You shouldn’t be out there in that heat anyway,” Grandma had said. “You know what Doc Handley told you.”

    “Well, now, I guess I know what I can do and what I can’t do.”

    “No, you don’t. You never have known that.” But Grandma was laughing, the way she did all the time.

    Grandpa made a little motion with his hand, like he was saying, I’m not going to talk about that, and then he set his hand on top of one of Jay’s. Grandpa had big hands, all covered with spots, and his fingers were twisted at the joints. “I’m just thinking you could go out and give that boy—Ken’s his name—a little help. I’ll pay you for it, half a dollar a day, if you’d be willing to do that.”

    He could hardly believe it. That was a lot of money. He liked the idea of working, too, not sitting around. It was like being a man.

    “You don’t mind working with a Jap, do you?”

    That took him by surprise. Why would Grandpa want him to work with a Jap?

    “He’s a nice boy, and he works like a demon. He’ll keep you laughing, too.”

    He had known a Japanese boy in Salt Lake—a kid at one of the schools he’d gone to. But that was when he was little, way back before the war. Most Japs weren’t like that boy. Japs were about the worst people in the world—except for Nazis. They’d bombed Pearl Harbor, out in Hawaii, for no reason at all, and that was pretty much the same as bombing America. They were ugly little yellow guys with glasses. He had seen lots of pictures of them on posters all over Salt Lake, and down here in Delta, too. Japs weren’t as tough as the Marines, or anything like that, but they kept coming and coming, dying until they were stacked up like cordwood. They liked to torture people too. Gordy was right about that. What they wanted more than anything was to bomb California, and everywhere else in America after that. They wanted to take over the whole country, but Americans weren’t going to let that happen. That’s why they were fighting a war.

    “Ken’s seventeen. He just graduated. He’s a good ballplayer—played for the high school out at the camp. You know about the camp, don’t you?”

    “What camp?”

    “Topaz. It’s what they call an ‘internment camp.’ It’s out in the desert about twenty miles from here. After the war broke out, the government brought in over eight thousand Japs—a whole lot more people than live here in Delta—and set them up in barracks out there. They say that some of them are spies, and they want to blow up ships and airplanes, and do all sorts of things. But I don’t know. They come in from Topaz on buses and shop at my drugstore sometimes, and they’re all nice folks as far as I can tell.”

    That didn’t sound right. Grandpa always liked everybody. Maybe he just liked to have Japs spend money at his drugstore. Jay didn’t want to work with one.

    Sometimes, in Salt Lake, boys had called him “Injun,” and they’d made Indian noises, slapping their mouths and whooping. Gordy didn’t seem to care if he was part Indian, but what would he say if he found out he worked with a Jap? Then he’d probably be a dirty Indian, not a Chief.

    His dad had said things about Indians sometimes. Maybe he was half Navajo, but he made fun of Jay anyway—when he was joking around. “Hey, red man,” he would yell, “don’t scalp me,” and then he would pretend he had a tomahawk and chop at Jay’s head. But that was just joking. He liked to remember things like that now—when Dad was funny and playing around.

    Mom had been mad at Dad way too much back then. But he was fun sometimes. That was what she always forgot. Once his dad had taken Jay up by the mountains to a zoo, and they’d walked all over and seen all the animals and everything. He’d even told Jay about things he’d done when he was a boy and had gone out to the Navajo reservation in the summer. He said, serious, he didn’t mind being half Indian. His mother had taught him good things.

    It seemed like Mom was still mad about everything. She remembered all the bad stuff too much. She hadn’t even gone to the zoo with them. She should have done things like that, and not always told Dad what was wrong with him. He was a hero now, and when he came back, everything would be different. He wouldn’t get mad when he got back.

  • Meet the Author

    Dean Hughes is the author of more than eighty books for young readers, including the popular sports series Angel Park All-Stars, the Scrappers series, the Nutty series, the widely acclaimed companion novels Family Pose and Team Picture, and Search and Destroy. Soldier Boys was selected for the 2001 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age list. Dean Hughes and his wife, Kathleen, have three children and nine grandchildren. They live in Midway, Utah.

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