Newbery Medalist Karen Cushman (The Midwife’s Apprentice; Catherine, Called Birdy) loves to write about “gutsy girls figuring out who they are.” The titular character of War and Millie McGonigle is yet another outstanding creation.
Twelve-year-old Millie knows all too well what it’s like to endure a personal and a national crisis simultaneously. It’s September 1941. Over the summer, as World War II raged in Europe, Millie’s beloved grandmother died on Millie’s birthday. No wonder Millie feels that the world is “full of war and death.”
Just before she died, Gram gave Millie a diary and instructed her to use it to remember good things. Now Millie keeps her “Book of Dead Things” like a talisman, jotting down notes and sketches of things she sees, such as an octopus caught by a fisherman on the San Diego beach near her home. She’s also developed a ritual of writing her last name in the sand over and over, which she hopes will keep death away from her family.
Money is tight for the McGonigles, but everyone pitches in to help the war effort. After Mama becomes a welder and Pop gets a job as a clerk at the Navy Exchange, Millie is left to oversee her younger siblings, including Lily, who has weak lungs. Gram’s absent-minded cousin Edna also moves in, making the family’s tight quarters even tighter. As Millie seeks freedom outdoors, she finds joy in a new friend and develops a crush on an older surfer.
As always, Cushman exquisitely captures her story’s historical setting. Readers will feel the San Diego sun on their shoulders as Millie steers her rowboat into warm bay waters and the sand between their toes as Millie explores the mud flats. Millie’s winning first-person narration is filled with 1940s slang like “holy mackerel” and “good gravy,” as well as references to “The Lone Ranger,” Bob Hope and the ongoing fear of polio. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the McGonigles sleep in their clothes and keep suitcases packed in case they have to evacuate, and their blackout curtains make Millie feel as though there is “not a glimmer of light left on earth.”
Despite such serious topics, War and Millie McGonigle is a lively book filled with humor, love and transformation. Millie gradually learns to navigate her grief, deal with her fears and shift her focus from war and death to life and the living. Though Cushman roots the story in tangible details of the ’40s, it has much to offer contemporary readers. Gram, for instance, was a crusader who felt that all girls should know “songs of protest and the phone number of your state representative.” Millie follows in her grandmother’s footsteps and repeatedly intervenes to prevent bullying against kids of Italian and Japanese descent.
Reminiscent of Katherine Paterson’s sensitive portrayals of grief, War and Millie McGonigle acknowledges the suffocating enormities of fear, injustice and tragedy Millie experiences while revealing a path forward. As Gram tells Millie, “Life’s not hopeless. We can do something about what worries and scares us. . . . Despite the horror, people care, work together for a better world, and bravely fight back.”