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Jukebooks: The War Novels of Walter Dean Myers

2014 July 9
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As you may already know, the world lost a literary hero on July 1 with the passing of Walter Dean Myers, winner of the very first Printz Award, as well as so many other awards and honors.

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers is one of the most powerful, gut-wrenching novels on war ever written for a young adult audience. Since its publication in 1988, readers have vicariously lived the harrowing experiences of Richie, a bookish high school graduate from Harlem, in the jungles of Vietnam. The story portrays not only the dangers of deadly warfare in a foreign environment but also the incompetence and racism of commanders. It has been challenged many times because of its realistic use of language and violence.

There are many great protest songs from the Vietnam Era, but the one I chose to accompany Fallen Angels is “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The lyrics speak for the thousands of young men who, like Richie, were thrust into this nightmarish war.

Yeah, some folks inherit star spangled eyes
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord
And when you ask them, “How much should we give?”
Oh, they only answer, more, more, more, oh

Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean MyersTwenty years later, Myers returns to war with Sunrise Over Fallujah, which follows Richie’s nephew, “Birdy’, through his service during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Birdy’s unit is part of the Civilian Affairs team, charged with helping people living in a war zone. Working closely with Iraqis is both dangerous and enlightening, as Birdy struggles to understand how they are meant to help. Again, Myers does not shy away from the harsh realities of IEDs, tribal warfare, and rape. Like its predecessor a generation earlier, Sunrise Over Fallujah also faced many challenges over content.

In the book, Birdy’s closest friend is Jonesy, a blues guitarist with the ambition of opening a blues club after the war. Jonesy’s outlook on the world is filtered through his immersion in the blues, as when he says about Saddam Hussein: “…Saddam got a tune in his head and he wants to play it real bad. And when it don’t go right he just play it louder. A lot of dudes do that. They call it music, but it could just be war.” (p15) 

American band Green Day released “21 Guns” in 2009, after establishing a role as blunt, outspoken patriots with their award-winning album, American Idiots. The lyrics express anger at wars that have lost a clear objective, and yet continue killing thousands of soldiers and civilians.

Do you know what’s worth fighting for?
When it’s not worth dying for?
Does it take your breath away and you feel yourself suffocating?
Does the pain weigh out the pride?
And you look for a place to hide?
Did someone break your heart inside,you’re in ruins

Invasion by Walter Dean MyersIn 2013, Myers stepped back in time to the battlefields of World War II. This time our narrator is  a young white soldier from Virginia named “Woody” Wedgewood.  The Perry family is not excluded from the story, however, as Woody knows Marcus Perry, father of Richie from Fallen Angels, from their shared home town. But the army is segregated in this time period. Woody and Marcus serve separately. Their paths meet coincidentally in France.

Woody becomes part of the D-Day invasion that signaled U.S. military involvement in World War II. It is a gruesome slaughter, as American troops land on the beach while German snipers mow them down. As Woody describes, “I hadn’t yet seen my first live German. The dead and the wounded, twisted and still in the wet sand, said they were there. We had run onto a great invisible death machine.” (p50)

World War II is frequently remember as a “just war.” There was a clear wrong, a defined enemy that had transgressed both political boundaries and human decency. Even still, as Myers demonstrates, it was a war that left its soldiers wounded in their hearts and minds, if not their bodies. To accompany this book is Muse’s “Soldier Poem,” written by Matthew Bellamy. The song does not specifically apply to World War II, but it captures the emotions of Myers’s soldiers as they face death so far from home.

How could you send us so far away from home
When you know damn well that this is wrong
I would still lay down my life for you
And do you think you deserve your freedom

Walter Dean Myers himself served in Vietnam. His younger brother was killed there. His war novels offer a perspective that does not refute the bravery or patriotism of American soldiers. His characters are ordinary teenagers who believed that military service would be a good option for them. All of them came to ponder that decision in the heat of battle.

In A Conversation with Walter Dean Myers about Sunrise Over Fallujahthe Scholastic interviewer asks what Myers hopes readers of his war novels will take away with them. “I want young people to be hesitant to glorify war and to demand of their leaders justification for the sacrifices they ask of our citizens,” he responds. “The young people who read Fallen Angels some twenty years ago are the same ones who are the senior officers in today’s military. I hope that reading Fallen Angels has made them prudent leaders. And when they progress to becoming decision makers, I hope that the earnest literature they have encountered, including Fallen Angels and Sunrise Over Fallujah will cause them to deliberate wisely.”

-Diane Colson

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