Friday, February 29, 2008

Book Review: Letters from Wolfie

Letters from Wolfie by Patti Sherlock. (Grades 4-8)

When Mark's brother Danny left to fight in the Vietnam War, Mark thought that everything would be different. He thought someone might actually pay attention to him and he was really looking forward to spending some time alone with his mom. Mark is surprised, then, when his mom almost immediately announces her intention to get a job. Mark is, once again, feeling ignored. When Danny mentions in a letter that the army is in need of dogs to help the war effort, Mark thinks that making a noble, selfless gesture like sending his dog Wolfie would be a great way to get people to notice him and to do his part. After he sends Wolfie, though, Mark has second thoughts and when he writes to find out when Wolfie might be coming home, he is put into contact with Wolfie's handler, a private from Kentucky named Tucker Smalley. Tucker and Mark begin exchanging letters about Wolfie and about the war.

Everyone asks Mark about Danny, which frustrates Mark because even though he's not around Danny's still getting all the attention. Mark doesn't have much news anyway because Danny writes hardly anything about the war. In school, Mark becomes friends with a cute girl named Claire, but he's dismayed to learn that her brother is a draft dodger and is "hiding out" in Canada to avoid fighting. Mark's always known that he would serve in the military when he was old enough, just like Danny is now. His father's always told him it's a great way to get a free college education and Mark has never thought to question it. But Claire and Mark's history teacher Mr. Casey have different ideas about the Vietnam War. For the first time, Mark is getting to know people unlike himself. As Mark gets to know them both better, he starts to rethink his own opinions about the war. When Mark finds out that Wolfie may not ever be coming home, that Wolfie is now considered "army equipment", he begins a campaign to bring Wolfie home. He organizes a protest that nearly tears his family apart. His dad firmly supports the war, while his mom seems to be wavering.

Mark can't help but wonder: if he doesn't support the war, does that mean he's not supporting Danny? Does it make him a traitor?

It's not much of a spoiler to warn you that the dog dies. Sensitive readers be aware. I cried for about the last 40 pages or so.

I really, really liked this book. One of the beauties of an award program like the Caudill is that you might pick up something you never would have picked up otherwise. This is one of those books. I love how Mark grows and changes, how he begins to talk with people about his ideas, and how he realizes for the first time that other people might have different opinions. And that they might be right. Mark's viewpoint also shifts as the book progresses. At the beginning of the novel, all he cares about is getting some attention from his mom and being popular at school. By the end, he's learned that some issues are bigger than just himself. He starts trying to look at the world as others might look at it. He's starting to get the bigger picture.

I also loved the vivid description in the book. Sherlock puts you right in the middle of the action and makes it so real that you feel like you're marching alongside the protesters or playing catch with Wolfie. I loved how she described Wolfie at the beginning of the book:

"Wolfie's head sagged on his neck. He could be sad with his body, though his face had a permanent smile." (pg 2)

There are also some passages that cut right the heart of the matter. Take this one from when Mark is discussing the war with his mom and wondering whether being against the war is being disloyal to Danny:

"'Don't you think that's a little disloyal to Danny?' I asked.
She turned and looked at me. 'Explain.'
'Danny put himself in danger for this country.'
'No,' she said. 'Danny's country put him in danger.'" (pg 194)

All in all, I thought it was a great book and a timely choice for the Caudill list. (And yes, Sherlock includes an author's note [woohoo!] explaining some of the issues about using dogs in war and the efforts to commemorate their service.)

Incidentally, you can see a picture of the dog whom Wolfie was modeled after on Patti Sherlock's website.