In 1944, when her brother is overseas fighting in World War II, eleven-year-old Margaret changes her mind about the school bully, Gordy, after she discovers he is hiding his own brother, a deserter.
I was pulled into this small Maryland town by Margaret (or Magpie, as Gordy calls her) who was a fantastic narrator – she was a sweet, smart kid, but she let her friend, Elizabeth, talk her into almost anything.
The girls play games of “Step on a crack, break Hitler’s back!” because they know there’s a war going on, but as Margaret points out, other than stars hanging in windows*, newspaper stories, and letters home which are filled with reassurances that things are great, it doesn’t feel like anything is different. They don’t see the fighting, so it doesn’t feel real. And they believe what their parents believe, that it’s a man’s duty to his country to fight.
Then insert Gordy’s older brother, Stuart, who is hiding in a shack in the woods after deserting. He’s unapologetic about not fighting and while the girls’ initial reaction is anger and confusion, their feelings begin to change – about him, the war, Gordy, and a lot of other things.
Speaking of Gordy…
He appalled me when he did something like pushing Elizabeth down, then he broke my heart at the way he tried to protect his siblings from their abusive father. Unlike in YA, where he would be pegged as the misunderstood bad boy with a heart of gold, there was no sugarcoating in this book. He was a messed up kid with a horrible home life. There was no easy fix for him. Or for anyone.
There’s a passage near the end of the book (page 206), after Margaret’s mom finds out she helped hide Stuart and they argue back and forth about right and wrong:
I sighed. We’d gone in a circle and now we were right back where we’d started from. There was no answer, no firm ground to stand on. Leaning against Mother, I felt her arms close round me, as if she wanted to protect me from the cracks I saw opening everywhere.
That pretty much sums up the entire book, how over the span of six or seven months, Margaret dealt with so much change and heartbreak. This is a meaty, coming-of-age story that I highly recommend.
*On page 3, the stars are explained:
I saw Mother glance at the blue star hanging in our living room window, and I knew what she was thinking. That star meant Jimmy was overseas fighting a war Hitler started. There was a star in Elizabeth’s window, too, because her brother Joe was in the Navy. That summer, there were stars in a lot of windows in College Hill, and not all of them were blue. Some, like the one across the street in the Bedfords’ window, were gold. The Bedfords’ son Harold had been killed in Italy last summer. That was what gold meant.