Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata (4 stars out of 4)--
When I see a book dealing with the Vietnam War, a series of images and ideas flood into my mind: all of the politics, controversy, damage, death from that difficult time overcome my mind. A less talented writer may focus too much on political history and popular sentiment and write a bad novel. Fortunately, Cynthia Kadohata is an excellent writer, so her latest offering, Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam, is simply a great story that just happens to take place overseas. Even more fortunately, you do not have to own a dog to appreciate this one, and for those readers who are still drying their eyes two years later after reading Kira-Kira (I just put away the tissues last month), it does not have the piercing sadness and wrenching emotional impact of her well-deserved Newbery Award-winning novel; it’s just a good, old-fashioned adventure story.
It is the late 1960s. Willie knows he has to give up his German Shepherd, Cracker, because his new apartment complex does not allow dogs, but he cannot stand the thought of leaving her. However, when his father mentions that they need dogs to do important work helping soldiers in Vietnam, he realizes that Cracker’s destiny might be to save lives, and he agrees to give her up. Private Rick Hanski has never owned a dog before, but he is ready to try. With Willie, Cracker’s biggest decisions during the day were: “. . . whether to sleep in the bedroom or the boat room (she wasn’t allowed in the living room) and whether to sneak a pee somewhere that Willie’s parents wouldn’t find it (she did this only once, but she thought a lot about it)” (11). Now, her days are filled with special training: bomb sniffing, trap detecting, and people finding. At first, Rick thinks that Cracker is not as smart or talented as the other dogs, and he curses his bad luck for being placed with an inferior animal. But Rick learns in time that Cracker is not inferior, just wary. When she begins to trust Rick, a change occurs: “The more Rick trained, the more he started to feel that Cracker was reading his mind or something. Of course, he would never say this out loud, unless he wanted to be the laughingstock of the squad” (57). After Cracker and Rick begin to distinguish themselves, they are chosen for special assignments, and Cracker is not only charged to protect Rick; she becomes responsible for an entire company of 150 soldiers. Throughout all of their adventures, they stay true to their vision of helping America battle a war they are assigned to fight, and saving lives.
In the hands of a lesser novelist, Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam could have been a heavy-handed lecture on the evils of war, boring everyone with 40-year-old issues to which you simply cannot relate. Instead, Ms. Kadohata has written an excellent adventure yarn that just happens to take place during the Vietnam War. She cleverly avoids politics except for one scene in which a civilian yells at Rick in the airport, and she keeps the book where it should be: grounded in reality, but dwelling in the imagination. Kadohata writes such a convincing and realistic internal dialogue for Cracker, I hardly knew she was a dog until she started taking about her nose, her primary information gathering sense. You do not have to be a dog lover to enjoy Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata, just a book lover. It helps if you like excellent writing as well.


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