I’ve just spent some time reliving the first ten years of my childhood with the help of Deborah Wiles and the first two books of her stellar (and I mean STELLAR) 1960s trilogy. Although they feature middle grade age protagonists, I’d also say that these books would be instructive and interesting for high school and adult readers as well.
In Countdown, Wiles chronicles the life of an 11-yr-old girl, Franny, and her family during the tension-filled week of the Cuban missile crisis, before Russia and the U.S. came to an agreement about nuclear disarmament. Franny’s perspective is often hilarious or horrifying, sometimes both. It gives you a sense of what it was like to be a child in October of 1962, living next to a military base near Washington DC with Castro/Russia one button away from obliterating you, your family, school, and city.
“…before Gale can smile, before anyone can answer, the sky cracks wide open with an earsplitting, shrieking wail.
It’s the air raid siren, screaming its horrible scream in the playground, high over our heads on a thousand-foot telephone pole—and we are outside. Outside. No desk, no turtle, no cover.
We are all about to die.”
Franny lies in bed at night, thinking about the letter she wants to write to Castro. Her fear is palpable. But at the same time, she’s precocious, irreverent, and filled with insight—or lack of insight as the case may be.
Wiles includes hundreds of cultural references to songs, inventions, and places such as McDonalds (when it was a revelation in food service), duct tape, and Pete Seeger’s bio and song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” All have been carefully selected to help the reader fully experience this time period.
Countdown even comes with a playlist, songs and sections of speeches referred to in the novel that you can listen to as you read.
While the nuclear pressure cooker reaches new heights, Franny has to deal with other fifth grade issues, like prickly friendships, competing with her best friend, missing her older sister who’s going to college, and being publicly embarrassed by her uncle, a WWI vet who suffers from dementia and haunting war memories.
In Countdown, Wiles also plants the seeds for the second book of the trilogy, Revolution, by including documents about the growing unrest in the U.S. around civil rights.
“…if ugly things happen to us, if death comes to us, it will be in such a way—for the same reasons that have happened to untold numbers of Negroes for years.” from Freedom Summer volunteer Zoya Zeman’s diary, June 24, 1964
Revolution is a 2014 National Book Award Finalist, a well-earned honor. It’s set during 1964’s “freedom summer,” when a voter registration drive in Mississippi brought more than a thousand volunteers from around the country into the state. The volunteers were often harassed and attacked, sometimes by police and other authorities, leading to the deaths of three civil rights activists.
The book alternates between narrators: Sunny, a white, 12-yr-old, female ball-of-fire who lives in Greenwood, Mississippi, and Raymond, a black, teenage baseball prodigy who lives in Greenwood’s Colored Town. During Freedom Summer, their lives are destined to intersect.
The story opens with Sunny and her stepbrother, Gillette, sneaking out at night to swim in the town’s pool. But the unexpected happens:
“I hear the water sluice off Gillette as he climbs the ladder. I quicken my froggy pace. ‘You’re going to hit the side,’ he warns.
But I don’t hit the side. I don’t hit the end, either. I reach behind me and touch something in the water, something soft and warm pressed into the dark corner of the pool.
And that’s when I scream.”
End of chapter one.
Sunny immediately thinks that she’s accidentally touched one of the “invaders” she’s heard people talk about. She wonders what kind of alien life form they could be. But during the next day’s Sunday sermon, she finds out from the preacher that the invaders are human. Most of them will be college students, and all of them are coming to register Negroes to vote.
The preacher asks churchgoers to remember their Christian beliefs, to know that “All men are equal in the sight of God’s earth…”
Sunny watches as “People shift in their seats like they’re newspapers somebody’s rattling.” Then several members of the congregation get up and walk out before the end of the service. We know that things are not going to go well once the “invaders” show up.
Wiles ties these two books together when Franny’s (Countdown) older sister, Jo Ellen, shows up in Greenwood, Mississippi as a Freedom Summer “invader.”
We see sinister, slow drive-bys with white men at the wheel, KKK flyers dropped from airplanes, police with rifles hidden in their trunks, and the Beatles. I’ll bet Revolution will have its own playlist sometime down the road.
Wiles is a master suspense-builder. The nonfiction primary and secondary source materials provide context and add layers of tension to each story’s narrative. Both of these books were hard to put down, as I kept thinking “Just one more chapter” long into the night.
As a child younger than Franny and Sunny during the 1960s, I didn’t learn about these events in books because it was being recorded and recounted daily in the news. And my parents must have thought I was too young to discuss these issues with me at the time. I only read the cartoons on Sundays. So I loved how these books filled in a missing narrative in my own life.
The third book in the trilogy, Tribe, is set to take place in 1969, another particularly turbulent year for our nation. It has not yet been released.
Turns out I’m one of those impatient kids who wants to start heckling the author to “hurry up!” Given the complex nature of her books, including the vast amount of documentation that needs to be vetted, I won’t hold my breath, but I do hope Tribe will be released sometime within the next year or two.