Missing in Action
  • Missing in Action
  • 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 things are different after he and his mother move to a small town in Utah to stay with his grandparents during World War II. Jay makes friends and earns money working the fields for his well-respected grandfather—but he encounters a problem in Ken, a

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Dirty. Lazy. Good-for-nothing. Jay Thacker is used to being called names because his dad is half Navajo. But things are different after he and his mother move to a small town in Utah to stay with his grandparents during World War II. Jay makes friends and earns money working the fields for his well-respected grandfather—but he encounters a problem in Ken, a fellow worker who’s from the nearby Japanese internment camp. Ken’s a Jap. And Jay’s dad, who’s been fighting for the Navy out in the Pacific, is missing in action. This understated and moving story from the author of the acclaimed Soldier Boys chronicles an unlikely friendship and gives readers a glimpse of the past that enlightens the present.

Editorial Reviews

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.)
Highly Recommended Library Media Connection
“[A] wonderful novel that is sure to appeal on many levels…the issues explored will make many think.”
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

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Product Details

Simon Pulse
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
4.10(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Missing in Action

  • JAY THACKER WAS STANDING BY the backstop. His baseball glove was tucked under his arm. For now, he was just watching. He was new in town and he didn’t know any of the boys who were out on the field. Most of them weren’t very good players—he could see that—but then, he wasn’t that great himself. He thought he’d like to play, but he didn’t want to say so.

    The boys were playing workup, not teams, and one guy—Gordy, everyone kept calling him—had stayed up to bat three or four times. He was standing at first base now, chattering on and on, trying to bother the pitcher. His voice sounded rough, like the sound a shovel makes, hitting into gravel. “You better watch me, Freddy,” he kept saying. “I’m taking off. I’m gonna steal second.” And then, after Freddy bounced a pitch in the dirt, “You throw like my grandma. You can’t pitch.”

    Jay couldn’t help smiling. This Gordy kid really thought he was good.

    Gordy turned and looked toward the outfield. “Move back, boys. Lew’s going to hit the ball over your heads. He’s gonna bring me home.”

    Lew was big, but he swung at the next pitch and knocked a little blooper out into shallow left field. Gordy ran hard to second and then kept right on going for third. The boy in left ran in for the ball and fielded it okay. He should’ve thrown Gordy out, easy, but he tried to hurry and tossed the ball clear over the third baseman’s head. The ball rolled out into the street and Gordy ran on home. He jumped on the plate with both feet, then spun around and yelled, “You’re never going to get us out. We’re the Bronx Bombers.” Then his head jerked around and he said, “Hey, kid, do you want to play?”

    It took Jay a second or two to realize Gordy meant him. “I guess so,” he said.

    “Head out to right field. That’ll give ’em four outfielders, but it won’t make no difference. Those guys are sorry excuses for ballplayers. You any good?”

    “Not really. I—”

    “Who are you anyway?”

    By then he was walking around the backstop, which was nothing more than chicken wire nailed onto some pine poles. “My name’s Jay Thacker.”

    “Where’d you come from?”

    “Salt Lake City.”

    “Uh-oh.” Gordy turned toward the field again. “Hey, we got us a big-city boy here. Maybe he can play. You better hope so. You sad sacks need all the help you can get.” He looked back at Jay and grinned.

    Gordy was wearing a faded red baseball cap. Whitish hair, stiff as straw, was sticking out from under it. His face was sunburned and skin was peeling off his nose and ears. His top teeth were goofy, like they were too big for his mouth. At least he’d noticed Jay and asked him to play.

    He trotted out to right field and waited to see what might happen, but he was glad when the first few batters didn’t hit the ball his way. He didn’t want to make an error right off and have to listen to Gordy say something about that.

    One kid hit a grounder to first base and made an out. That meant Freddy, the guy who’d been pitching, finally made it up to bat. He struck out his first time up, though. He couldn’t hit any better than he could pitch. At least Jay knew he was better than that guy. Gordy and Lew both kept getting on base, but half the time it was because of errors. That didn’t stop Gordy from telling everyone how great he was.

    Jay worked his way around to left field, and then he made a decent play on a grounder that bounced past the shortstop. He threw to second and his toss was a little off line, but he didn’t end up looking too bad. Gordy yelled at him, “Hey, Thacker, you’re the best one out there. You didn’t fall on your face—and I figured you might.”

    Jay didn’t say anything. Some of the guys were yelling at Gordy, telling him he wasn’t as hot as he thought he was. But Jay had never been able to do anything like that.

    After a while Lew hit a fly ball that was caught by a short kid out in center. The kid ran toward home plate and Lew ran out to center. That meant they were playing “flies go up.” Right after that another guy struck out, so Jay moved over to third base and Gordy was up for about the eighth or ninth time. “Look out, boys,” he yelled. “This time I’m going for the fence. You better move way back.”

    The sun was getting low in the sky now, but the air was still hot. Sweat was running off Jay’s face. He used his shirt to wipe his eyes.

    Gordy took a big swing at the first pitch and slammed a hard grounder straight at Jay. He was ready, but the ball skipped over his glove and hit him like a fist, right in the throat. He dropped to his knees and grabbed his neck. He was choking, but he didn’t want to look stupid, so he stood up as quick as he could. Tears were running down his cheeks, not from crying, but just from coughing and trying to swallow.

    Gordy came running out. “Hey, you all right?”

    “Sure,” he tried to say.

    “Did it hit your chin or . . . oh man, it caught you right in the throat, didn’t it?”

    “I’m okay.” Some of the other guys were coming over.

    “Can you swallow all right?”

    “Yeah.” And he could now. But it hurt.

    “Hey, I gotta tell ya, man. You’re tough as nails. That was a blue darter I hit at you.” Gordy grinned, showing those funny teeth again. “That woulda put a lot of guys flat on their back.”

    He was thinking he didn’t want to stick around and play anymore. He didn’t want to say that, though, not with Gordy talking that way about him.

    “Are you a Indian?”


    “You look like a Indian.”

    He wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t like to talk about that. “My dad’s half Navajo.” More guys were gathering around him now. Lew had come in from left field.

    “No wonder you can take a blow and get back up,” Gordy said. “You got Indian blood in you.”

    He didn’t mind that, but he knew all the bad things people said about Indians. He’d heard plenty of that in Salt Lake. Indians were dirty and lazy—stuff like that. He didn’t want these guys to think that’s what he was.

    “What are you doing in Delta?”

    He was getting his breath back now, and his throat didn’t feel all stopped up. He wanted the game to get going again. “Me and my mom came down here to live for a while. My dad’s in the war.” But talking made him cough again.

    Gordy gave him a couple of slaps on the back, like that was going to help out somehow. “Where’s he fighting?”

    “Out in the Pacific. He’s in the navy.” He didn’t want to tell the rest.


    He rubbed his hand over his throat, and then he flicked away some tears from one cheek. “We don’t know exactly.”

    “Yeah. It’s prob’ly secret. I know what you’re talking about. What’s he on? A battleship?”

    Jay tried to think of something else to say, but he couldn’t think of anything. So he said it. “His ship went down. He’s missing in action.”

    Jay saw Gordy’s reaction, the way his head jerked back. All the boys had been holding their gloves under their arms, kind of waiting, like they wished Gordy wouldn’t carry this on so long. Now they were changed. They were staring at Jay, and he knew what they were thinking.

    Gordy said it out loud. “My dad says ‘missing in action’ just about always turns into ‘killed in action.’”

    “My dad’s not dead, though,” he said, louder than he meant to say it. “He’s a good swimmer. He probably made it to an island or something like that. Or he could’ve been picked up by the Japs and made into a prisoner of war.”

    “Hey, that’s worse than death,” Gordy said. “The Japs starve people and torture ’em. They pull out their fingernails with pliers—all that kind of stuff.”

    “Come on, Gordy,” one of the boys said. “He probably made it to an island. You don’t need to—”

    “Hey look, Eldred, I’m not saying he’s dead. Or that the Japs are working him over. I’m just saying that’s how it is when they get hold of you. Everybody knows that.”

    “My dad’s alive,” Jay said. “When the war’s over, he’ll come home.”

    “I think he’ll probably get home,” Gordy said. “I’ll bet he’s as tough as you—maybe tougher. He’s half Indian, not just a quarter.”

    At least he hadn’t said Jay’s dad was lazy or dirty.

    “Lay off, Gordy,” Eldred said. “You don’t need to get into all that.” Eldred was the short kid who had caught the ball out in center. He wore wire eyeglasses that made his eyes look big.

    “How long’s he been missing?” asked Gordy.

    “I can’t remember exactly.”

    But he did remember. His dad had joined the navy right after the war broke out, and his ship had been sunk early in the year—February 1943—out by the Solomon Islands. He’d looked at a map; he knew where they were, clear down by Australia. That had been four months ago—a little more than that. If Jay told Gordy, though, he would say that was a long time not to hear.

    Gordy only nodded—like maybe he knew Jay didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He even said, “So do you guys want to keep trying to get me out, or have you had enough for one night?”

    The sun was glowing, turning orange, and Jay knew it had to be pretty late. In June, here in the desert, the sun never seemed to go down, especially on “war time”—with all the clocks set forward.

    “I gotta go,” a little kid said—a guy who had made more errors than anyone.

    “You’re no big loss, Will,” Gordy told him.

    But some of the other guys said they had to get home too, and the game broke up. Jay took a step away, but Gordy said, “Where you living, Chief?”

    He stopped and looked back, surprised by the name.

    “His name’s not Chief,” Eldred said.

    “It is now. That’s what I’m going to call him. You don’t care, do you, Chief?”

    “My name’s Jay.”

    “I know. But I like that name. Chief. It fits you. ’Cause you’re tough and everything.”

    He didn’t want to be called that, but he didn’t say so.

    “So where you living?”

    “With my Grandpa Reid.”

    “Kimball Reid? From the drugstore?”


    “He’s your grandpa?” Gordy looked surprised. “I didn’t know one of his kids married a Indian.”

    Lew had stepped over next to Gordy. “No kidding. Brother Reid’s your grandpa?”

    He nodded.

    “He gave me my patriarchal blessing.”

    Jay knew his grandpa was the patriarch in Delta. That was something in the church—the Mormon church—but he wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.

    “Before he was patriarch, he was my bishop,” Eldred said. “He’s about the best man in this whole valley. I’ve heard my dad say that.”

    He could see that all three of the boys were looking at him in a new way. Eldred’s big eyes were staring hard at him. Jay said, “I’ll tell you what else. My dad’s a war hero. Before his ship got sunk, he won some medals. Quite a few.”

    “Which ones?” asked Gordy.

    “I can’t remember what they’re called.”

    “A silver star or a bronze? Anything like that?”

    “Yeah. I think so.”

    “Hey, then, he is tough. He can stand up to the Japs, all right. He’s not a drunk, is he?”


    “A lot of Navajos are drunks. And they’ll steal anything that ain’t tied down. My dad don’t trust any of ’em.”

    “My dad doesn’t steal,” he said, loud again.

    “I didn’t say he did. That’s just my dad talking. I know some other stuff. Indians can run fast—a lot of ’em. And they know everything about hunting and tracking down animals, all those things. Is that how you are?”

    He didn’t think so. But he didn’t say that. He said, “I can run pretty fast.”

    “You can take a hard grounder in the throat, too, and get back up.”

    Eldred shook his head. “Don’t start that again, Gordy.” Eldred’s overalls were all faded out and too small for him. He had his hat off now, and Jay could see that his hair was cut straight around, like maybe his mom had cut it, not a barber.

    “So are you going to live here for the rest of the war?” Lew asked. He was taller than any of the kids. He had a nose that looked flattened out a little, like it had gotten broken sometime. He looked mean, a little, but he didn’t sound that way. He’d gotten a lot of hits, the same as Gordy, and he hadn’t yelled about it.

    “I don’t know how long we’ll stay,” he said. He touched his hand to his Adam’s apple. He could feel that the skin had been roughed up, but the pain was deeper in, like a bruise.

    “We play ball pretty much every night once the sun drops down a little,” said Lew. “It gets too hot in the day—and most of us have to work around our own places in the mornings. But you can come over any night you want to and just about always get in a game.”

    “How old are you, Jay?” Eldred asked.

    “Almost thirteen.”

    “Is that right? I figured you for fourteen. Most of us will be in eighth grade next year, some in seventh. The high school boys play on the good diamond—the one the town team plays on—so we come over here. That way, nobody bothers us.”

    “Do you have any arrowheads, Chief?” Gordy asked, like that was what everyone had been talking about. His hands were stuck into the front pockets of his jeans—old ones that had been patched in the knees a couple of times. He had a grass stain across the shoulder of the old undershirt he was wearing. He was still grinning. Jay didn’t know why.

    “Grandpa has some arrowheads, but I don’t,” he said.

    “You ain’t much of a Indian, are you?” Gordy laughed, making a scratchy sound, like the way he talked. “Around here, we collect arrowheads. I’ve got about two dozen, I guess, if you count broke pieces. We go out in the desert and look for ’em, or we go over by Topaz Mountain and look for chunks of topaz, and we shoot BB guns. You ever done stuff like that?”


    “Do you want to?”

    “I guess.”

    “We’ll have to teach you the stuff a Indian is supposed to know.”

    “I’m not an Indian. I’m just—”

    “I know all that. But we’ll teach you about the desert—and how to find stuff out there. When we can get ammo for our .22 rifles, we shoot rabbits. Or we just shoot what we can with our BB guns. We’ll show you all that stuff.”

    Jay was nodding again, but he wasn’t sure about any of this. Everything was different here. Maybe he and his mom should have stayed in Salt Lake. He didn’t want everyone, right off, thinking he was an Indian.

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    Missing in Action 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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