A timely, eye-opening novel showing how war affects families on both sides
Ever since her brother Sef left for Iraq, Cassie has felt like her life is falling apart. Her parents are fighting over her brother having gone to war. Her smart beautiful sister is messing up. Her little brother, who has Down syndrome, is pretending he's a Marine.
And her best friend no longer has time for her. In her loneliness Cassie turns to a surprising source of comfort: Blue Sky, an Iraqi girl she meets through her blog. The girls begin a correspondence and Cassie learns that when Blue says "I want my life back," she means something profound, as she can no longer venture out in her destroyed city. Cassie takes strength from Blue Sky's courage and is inspired to stop running away from the pain, and to reclaim her life.
WHEN A BROTHER GOES TO WAR
REVIEW by JENNIFER BRUER KITCHEL
Now that Cassie is in middle school, she faces all the attendant problems any eighth-grade girl might encounter: losing friends, finding new ones, dancing around the inevitable cliques, dealing with crushes on boys and problems at home. The difference between Cassie and most girls her age is that her problems at home began when her older brother enlisted in the military. Sef is going to Iraq, an act admired by his father and reviled by his mother, feared by Cassie and her older sister Van, and not understood by younger brother Jack, who has Down syndrome.
Cassie’s own anxiety about Sef is drowned by her mother’s almost catatonic dread, forcing Cassie to feel as if she must step in and save everybody, and leaving her with no outlet for her emotions. When an assignment in Social Studies class leads her to correspond with an Iraqi girl her own age (who calls herself Blue Sky), Cassie finds someone who will listen to her fears. In the process, Cassie also learns that, in comparison to Blue Sky’s encounters with daily bombs and missing family members, her life is not so unmanageable.
While everyone in Cassie’s family seems to hold their breath waiting for Sef’s return, the conclusion of the book is not the Hollywood welcome home we all hope for, but rather the peace they find in the waiting.
Award-winning author Mary Sullivan has written a novel for young readers that is both timely and timeless. Though the story is set during the Iraq war, the struggles that Cassie goes through are applicable to any era. Sullivan’s prose allows us to feel the bittersweet acceptance and love each family member has for the others, and we leave feeling the same for Cassie as she must feel for her brother: hope for her future well-being and the joy of living in the present.
In the Shadow of War
New Books by Frances O’Roark Dowell and Mary Sullivan
By MARIA RUSSO
Published: August 23, 2012
"A convention of novels aimed at children in the middle-grade years holds that whatever problem a girl confronts, her parents will not be the ones to help. This often makes sense both psychologically and narratively. These are the years when children begin to differentiate themselves from their parents and learn to fight their own battles. And really, how exciting would a story be in which our heroine, say, is ganged up on by other girls, but then tells her mother, who steps in, does all the right things, and every¬thing’s fine?
But in both “The Second Life of Abigail Walker,” by Frances O’Roark Dowell, and “Dear Blue Sky,” by Mary Sullivan, the picture is more complex. For one thing, the heroines of both books come to realize parents have problems of their own that sometimes get in the way of their registering, let alone helping to fix, the challenges their children confront. What’s more, as both girls learn, there are some situations so terrible and so intractable they cannot be fixed — not by parents, not by anyone. They can only be endured and, sometimes, learned from. The Iraq war, for example.
“The Second Life of Abigail Walker” introduces Abby, a sixth grader, at the moment she decides she’s through being pushed around by the mean girl, Kristen, who rules over their social circle with arbitrary cruelty. Abby is a natural target; she is not quite like the rest of the girls – they’re “medium smart, medium good at sports, their families had a medium amount of money.” Most painfully, their bodies are medium-size, while Abby is noticeably heavier. One day Abby walks away from an insult at the lunch table, and from the hope of staying in the group. She will just have to start a “second life.”
What’s wonderful is how Dowell, the author of several beloved books for tweens and teenagers including the Edgar-winning “Dovey Coe,” gracefully draws the many concentric circles of Abby’s life. Forced to escape the menacing Kristen and eager to avoid her own distracted parents, who concentrate on her mainly to deliver unsubtle messages that she needs to eat less, Abby ventures into a new part of her neighborhood. There, she meets a younger boy named Anders. He lives on his grandmother’s horse farm with his father, who acts strangely — something horrible happened to him while he fought in the Iraq war, and he believes he must finish the research for a long poem about animals or he cannot get well. While spending time at the farm and learning to ride a horse is liberating for Abby, it’s even more empowering to mobilize a group of new, more intellectually oriented friends to help with the research project.
All the while a proud fox, whom Abby crosses paths with at the beginning of the novel, roams near her house. She seems to have extraordinary — perhaps even time-traveling — abilities, and has been watching and guiding Abby. Is she somehow part of the Iraq story of Anders’s dad, too? Dowell suggests as much with a poetic logic that forms a nice antidote to the novel’s all-too-realistic mean girl plot.
Aimed at slightly older readers, the absorbing “Dear Blue Sky” also brings into focus the many layers of needless suffering the Iraq war brought about. It also shows how being forced to face the deadly realities of war can deepen a teenager’s understanding of life. Cassie’s older brother, Sef, is on the way to fight in Iraq. Sef is the one who holds the family together, and as the book opens, Cassie, a seventh grader, is terrified Sef will get killed.
There’s no comfort left at home either as her parents come unhinged: Her father looks on helplessly as her distraught mother drinks too much and stays out late. When Cassie’s mother openly flirts with the father of Cassie’s best friend, Sonia, Sonia drops Cassie entirely. Nor is Cassie’s sister any help: She has a new, older boyfriend and has become sullen and “obsessed with clothes and hair and stuff.” Her younger brother, who has Down syndrome, won’t stop wearing camouflage, thinking he, too, will be going to Iraq.
The charismatic Sef hovers throughout in the background, materializing only through occasional e-mails and phone calls, which allows Sullivan to bring to life the tricky proposition of supporting the troops while thinking the war itself is a huge mistake, as most people around Cassie do. But the book’s most powerful stroke comes when Cassie discovers the blog of an Iraqi girl her age who calls herself “Blue Sky” and describes the bloody chaos of war and her shattered life. The two begin e-mailing each other about their very different lives, and their correspondence runs throughout the book.
“It’s hard to imagine bombs falling and snipers shooting on the way to school,” Cassie writes. “I try to be strong but many times I shake at night,” Blue Sky writes. Together, they trade strategies for dealing with panic attacks, and in their connection, Cassie discovers both a dark truth about the world and a way to appreciate her own life, diminished as it is by Sef’s absence and her family’s other problems. “This is truth,” Blue Sky tells her. “No one is happy about a thing until it is lost.”
—Maria Russo is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.
"It’s 2006, and seventh-grader Cassie’s brother, Sef, has just been deployed to Iraq. Dad is a proud veteran and welcomes Sef’s decision. Mom disapproves of the war but wants to support her son. Sef has always been the rock of the family, hero to eight-year-old brother Jack (who has Down’s syndrome), keeper-in-line of moody teenaged sister Van, and role model to Cassie, who wants to fill Sef’s shoes but finds that they are too big. As part of a class project on Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Cassie begins to follow the blog of a thirteen-year-old Iraqi girl known as Blue Sky. It’s eye-opening to see the war from Blue Sky’s perspective, and Cassie learns that things can be more complicated than they initially seem. The complexity of war is a challenge in a book for middle-schoolers, but Sullivan gets it right. Cassie’s family, honest and hurting, behaves in ways disjointed, unpredictable, and also occasionally heroic. The Giver, with its references to memory, freedom, and letting go, fits in well with the story’s themes. As in Lowry’s book, the ending leaves readers to imagine the characters’ fates. Just as in war, Cassie finds there are no easy answers."
—robin l. smith, Publisher's Weekly
"After Cassie’s larger-than-life older brother, Sef, leaves to fight in Iraq, the seventh-grader struggles without his stabilizing influence. Cassie’s family is faltering, too: her sister rebels with a new boyfriend; her mother drinks and has terrifying premonitions about Sef; and her younger brother, who has Down syndrome, stops speaking entirely. A school assignment prompts Cassie to find a blog written by someone her age in another country, and she begins corresponding with a 13-year-old blogger in Iraq who goes by the name Blue Sky. The teenager named her blog for the peaceful Iraq of the past, and she shares painful details about deaths, power outages, and having to stop attending school because of bombing. In her first children’s book, adult author Sullivan (Ship Sooner) effectively sketches Cassie’s growing confusion as she learns more and cultivates a more balanced view of the war while making new friends and resolving her own conflicts. Sullivan doesn’t sugarcoat how hard things are for Cassie’s family on the home front, yet captures the resilience and hope that keep them going. Ages 10–up."
"Mary Sullivan takes complex subjects—war, loyalty, bullying, friendship—and honors their complexity in lucid, fast-paced, effortless-seeming prose. Her young narrator, Cass, comes to understand that love is not easy, nor, in itself, is it enough to set the world right. But she also learns that love is often closer than it seems, and that the ability to recognize its presence is a vital gift. Full of questions and full of warmth, Dear Blue Sky allows readers to engage with big ideas in a wonderfully accessible way; even more generous, it allows us to think for ourselves."
—Leah Cohen, The Grief of Others
"Dear Blue Sky is a poignantly realistic look at the effects of war—on one side an American girl fears the loss of her older brother serving a tour of duty and on the other an Iraqi girl is fighting to survive the war on the ground. The novel will most deeply resonate with families coping with separation, loss, and fear. And it will raise awareness and deeper understanding for the victims of a war that has too often felt distant and unreal."
—Julianna Baggot, Pure
"Ms Sullivan's book is bold and lovingly written. Writing for those who are both young and adult, she has come down on the gratifying side of the balance."
"Cass is the girl every mother hopes her daughter will become: compassionate, inquisitive, strong, and comfortable in her own skin. The thoughtfulness with which she explores difficult subjects--war, friendship, and family conflict--will inspire readers of all ages."
—Vanessa Diffenbaugh, The Language of Flowers
"Dear Blue Sky is an engrossing story of fear and longing—for truth, normalcy, and the triumph of hope. heartrending and honest.
—Danica Novgorodoff , Refresh, Refresh