Millie McGonigle lives in sunny California, where her days are filled with beach and surf. It should be perfect--but times are tough. Hitler is attacking Europe and it looks like the United States may be going to war. Food is rationed and money is tight. And Millie's sickly little sister gets all the attention and couldn't be more of a pain if she tried. It's all Millie can do to stay calm and feel in control.
Still--there's sand beneath her feet. A new neighbor from the city, who has a lot to teach Millie. And surfer boy Rocky to admire--even if she doesn't have the guts to talk to him.
It's a time of sunshine, siblings, and stress. Will Millie be able to find her way in her family, and keep her balance as the the world around her loses its own?
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September 20, 1941
George lifted the slimy creature to his mouth and bit it right between the eyes. I had seen him and the other Portuguese octopus fishermen do that a hundred times, but it still made me shudder. “Doesn’t that taste muddy and disgusting?”
“Nah,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Only salty. I told you, this way he don’t die but only sleeps, stays fresh ’til he’s cooked.”
George threw the octopus into a bucket and slid over to another hole in the mud. He filled a turkey baster from a grimy Clorox bottle and squirted the bleach into the hole. In a minute another octopus slithered to the surface to avoid the bleach. George grabbed it, pulled it out, and bit it. “You want? Makes good stew.”
Another shudder ran up my back, and I shook my head. I’d as soon eat sand-flea soup or mud-snail chowder! I’ll take my fish from a can, thank you, mixed with mayo and chopped onion. Black olives, maybe. Anyway, the McGonigles’ money troubles, bad as they were, did not require us to eat octopus stew. Not yet, anyway.
I pulled my Book of Dead Things from the waistband of my shorts.
The octopuses in the bucket weren’t exactly dead, but close enough, I decided, to add to the book. Squatting down, I examined them closely: squishy and grayish with yellow splotches, many legs, bright blue eyes on . . . “Hey, George, octopuses have blue eyes!”
He wiped his face with his wet and muddy hands, leaving his face wet and muddy. “Nah, those fake eyes.” He pulled another from its hole. “Their real eyes up here, see.”
I looked. Indeed the octopus’s real eyes were higher on its head. Dark and kind of sad. And George bit it right between them.
I sketched an octopus as best I could, not being any kind of artist. My drawing looked like a blob of nothing, which is pretty much what the octopuses looked like but with bright blue fake eyes.
Tucking my book away, I walked on. Above me the September sun was bright and warm. In San Diego it was almost always bright and warm. People called it paradise, but often I’ve longed for a dreary day—heavy dark clouds, wind whistling over the water, rain tapping on the roof and falling plop plop plop, leaving little pockmarks on the sand. Mama snorts when I say this and calls me a romantic. I don’t think it’s meant as a compliment.
Except for the fishermen, I was alone on the beach. Summer visitors were mostly gone. Mission Beach is a spit of land two blocks wide and two miles long, with the ocean on one side and the bay on the other. Likely there were sunbathers and sand-castle builders over on the ocean side, but here on the bay it was quiet, with a scattering of cottages—some new, some shabby, all small—and few people to bother me. That was the way I liked it. I had tides to watch and dead things to find.
I sat myself on the end of the Lempkes’ dock, one of several wooden docks that reached out as if trying to touch the tiny island in the middle of the bay. The tide was out, and the mudflats, speckled with eelgrass, were alive with fiddler crabs, flies, and sand fleas. Here and there, a boat marooned in the mud squeaked and scraped, awaiting the high tides that would float it once again. Twice a day, every day, the tide came in and went out. Pop said the changing tides were caused by gravitational forces related to the sun and the moon. I didn’t understand how it worked, but each day I saw the waters of the bay recede and leave behind an expanse of mud and sand, and then return blue and deep. I could count on it. Every day the same.
I lay back on the warm boards of the dock, scratched the flea bites on my leg, and sniffed deeply of the rich, salty, fishy smell of the mud. Gulls screeched like rusty hinges as they soared above me, and flocks of curlews and sandpipers scratched for bugs for breakfast. There was plenty of life on the bay but a peaceful stillness, too, that comforted me when I needed comforting.
A brown pelican came to a clumsy landing on the mud and shook water from its feathers. “What’re you doing here?” I asked. The bird studied me closely with its dark, beady eyes but said nothing.
“Have you come to try and cheer me up, too? Everyone wants me to cheer up, but I refuse. Know why?” I sat up and glared at the bird. “The world’s full of war and death. That’s why. Hitler’s gobbling up one country after another, and I’m afraid he’ll come here next. My pop can’t find a job, Mama’s crabby, and Lily is sick all the time. What’s there to be cheery about?” I took a deep breath and let it out with a whoof. “Want to hear more?”
The bird made loud clacking sounds with its huge beak but still said nothing, just yawned a huge yawn and ruffled its feathers. Then it hopped awkwardly down the beach, flapping its mighty wings before soaring into the air, growing smaller and smaller until it disappeared. That’s what I get for trying to have a serious discussion with a pelican. Stupid bird.
I pulled out my Book of Dead Things again. Next to the octopus blob, I drew what else I’d found this morning—six sand dollars stuck together with tar, a faintly orange ghost shrimp, and a sand crab no bigger than my thumb. I was trying to capture what exactly marked them as dead: the lifeless droop of the shrimp’s pincers, the emptiness in the eyes of the crab. Where were they now? Why did they die and not some other shrimp or crab? Why did Gram die?
She did die. Last July. On my birthday, of all days. It was so wrong and unfair. We had all gone to a matinee of the new Bob Hope comedy, Caught in the Draft, to celebrate my birthday. There were awful newsreels about the war in Europe and the movie was about soldiers and danger and shooting, and I started to think again about war and death. What a world. Even Bob Hope movies left me worried and scared.
When we got home, I was gloomier than usual. Mama told me to get out until I was in a better mood, so Gram and I took a walk along the bay.
Still grumbling, I picked up stones and bombarded the water, the seagulls, the piers and docks we passed.
Gram grabbed my hand and held it still. “Where has my Millie gone, my merry squirt, my grumbly but funny dance partner and poker buddy? She had the biggest laugh. Anyone who heard it had to laugh, too. I don’t hear that laugh anymore.”
“Sorry, Gram, but this is how I am now. Better get used to glum and scared.”
Gram shook her head. “Bah, you’ve just taken on the world’s troubles sooner than a young person should have to. Too sensitive and smart for your own good, if you ask me. Now you’re no longer a merry squirt, you’re a gloomy squirt. And a gloomy squirt, dear Millie, can be a pain in the backsi—um, neck.”
I hid a smile at that before responding. “Why shouldn’t I be gloomy? You know what’s happening in the world. Hitler marching with tanks and planes and goose-stepping Nazis. Radios and newspapers and newsreels at the movies shouting about war and bombs, ruined cities, dead soldiers, loss and pain. How can I not think about that? And how can I not be gloomy about it?”
“I know. Terrible things are happening, but it’s not all tragedy and death.” She dropped my hand and gestured vigorously around, the loose skin on her arm moving like little waves on the bay. “Look, Millie, at this amazing place you live in. The sun and the warm breezes, the sea and the sky, the birds in the air, and the marvels of life in the sea. They can bring you joy. Remember them. Treasure them. Don’t let them be lost in your gloom.”
I would not be comforted. “But they die, the birds and the fish. I see them dead on the beach all the time. And what if Nazi bombs destroy the beach and the bay and everything in it?” I drew in a deep breath.
She put her arm around my shoulders. “Ah, Millie, of course you’re worried, but life’s not hopeless. We can do something about what worries and scares us. That’s why I march, pass out flyers, circulate petitions.” She gave my shoulders a squeeze. “And I’m not the only one. Despite the horror, people care, work together for a better world, and bravely fight back. There’s good, even in wartime, remember that.”
“What do you mean?” My voice got tight and screechy. And loud. “What’s good about war and death?”
Gram pulled a package wrapped in “Happy Birthday” paper and a green ribbon out of the pocket of her jacket. She made me unwrap it right there. Inside was a bright yellow notebook and a purple pen. “I thought you might like to keep a diary,” she said, “but now I have a better idea. Use this to remember the good things in this world, the things you care about. Family and friends, sunrises and sunsets, the birds in the air and the fishes in the bay. Things that seem lost or dead—keep them alive and safe in your book. Write. Draw pictures. Whatever is lost stays alive if we remember it.”
I was happy with the notebook but unsure about Gram’s idea. Did she really mean I should be drawing pictures of dead things? It was too late to keep them safe. Did she mean keep us safe? It was confusing. Still I thanked her and hugged her before we went back home.
After the twelve candles had been blown out, twelve kisses given, and the cake eaten, Gram had gone home. As she left, she gestured to the notebook and said, “Don’t let yourself forget, Millie.” It was the last thing she ever said to me.
At the cemetery, I threw rocks at the gravestones and refused to watch her being put into the ground. That was when I ripped the cheery yellow cover into a million pieces and turned the notebook into The Book of Dead Things, Mission Beach, San Diego, California, 1941.