Published June 27th 2017 by Scholastic Press
Format read: ARC via publisher
Survive the war. Outlast the enemy. Stay alive.
That's what Henry Forrest has to do. When he lies about his age to join the Marines, Henry never imagines he'll face anything worse than his own father's cruelty. But his unit is shipped off to the Philippines, where the heat is unbearable, the conditions are brutal, and Henry's dreams of careless adventuring are completely dashed.
Then the Japanese invade the islands, and US forces there surrender. As a prisoner of war, Henry faces one horror after another. Yet among his fellow captives, he finds kindness, respect, even brotherhood. A glimmer of light in the darkness. And he'll need to hold tight to the hope they offer if he wants to win the fight for his country, his freedom . . . and his life.
Michael P. Spradlin's latest novel tenderly explores the harsh realities of the Bataan Death March and captivity on the Pacific front during World War II.
On the one hand, I'm profoundly impressed that Michael P. Spradlin decided to tackle a topic as challenging and brutal as the Bataan Death March for young adult. You don't necessarily see that often, so kudos to Spradlin and to Scholastic for taking that risk.
And for the most part, the book is great in that it's historically accurate. Studying WWII history is a hobby of mine, and as far as I can tell, Spradlin is careful to depict the events of the book accurately, true to history and without any convenience shortcutting of the facts. If only it wasn't so dry.
Because that's where the book suffers, honestly. A lot of the characters are depicted as two-dimensional and dry, and there is no nuisance to their motivations or characterizations. E.g. the Japanese soldiers depicted in the book seem like two-dimensional villains, and reading about them just kept making me think of stronger depictions of enemies in war, where we saw how the enemy, had many of the same concerns, fears, friendship and nuisances, that US soldiers, have had in war. You don't necessarily get that here.
While the argument can be made that the two-dimensional aspect is likely how main character Henry Forest views the enemy - he's a young fifteen-year-old, without the education or nuisance of older soldiers - that argument is somewhat nullified, by Henry not being fully realized, as well. While Spradlin gives him elements of a compelling back story, we don't necessarily see his growth in conjunction with the events of the book.
(But then again: this might also be my age coming in; I likely know more about the events of WWII, then younger YA readers.)
I'll absolutely still recommend the book; I think it's an important, brave read that educates on an event that almost no other YA book has chosen to educate on. We need more of this in fiction, and I applaud Spradlin for taking that risk. I most definitely hope he'll return to this category in history, just with slightly more characterization next time.