Saturday, February 12, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Reunion -- Jay Searcy

The Last Reunion by Jay Searcy

# Hardcover: 284 pages
# Publisher: Graphix Network
# Language: English
# ISBN: 978-0-692-01233-8

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the USA’s goal to beat Russia to the moon in a very public speech at Rice University in Houston, TX. A portion of the commitment speech follows (with a slight break to omit references to football):

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours…. We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Less than twenty years before in 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a very private decision to make. We were at war with Germany. He knew Germany was working on an atomic bomb. Should we sit idle or should we race to beat the Nazis to a potentially world-destroying device?

There were no public speeches when government officials came to the East Tennessee hills and started buying off land. 3,000 people were evicted from their homes, farmers with only fourteen days notice to clear their barns and fields.

Thus, the Secret City, Oak Ridge, TN was born. All but a very select few of the 75,000 new residents who sprang up in that former farmland had any clue that they were working to beat Germany to the atomic bomb. Parents often didn’t tell their children what work they were doing.

The Last Reunion is part history of the building of the Secret City, Oak Ridge, TN and part memoirs of the people who lived there, including the top scientists and military officials. For the most part, the people portion focuses on the Oak Ridge High School class of 1952. Brief oral histories determine how the class came to Oak Ridge and what their lives have been in the years since.

From the beginning, conditions in the Secret City were rough. Many workers had to leave their families behind initially. Males and females were separated in dormitories. With a much higher male population which was often made up of construction workers and soldiers, any available female was a target.

Yet, there was a spirit of patriotism then. Tax dollars didn’t pay for the war. Instead, citizens bought bonds in record amounts, they endured rationing of almost everything, factories were quickly converted from peacetime to wartime efforts. In the homes, Victory Gardens were planted. People spent evenings knitting caps and scarves for the soldiers. Very few people were pacifists.

No, it wasn’t all copacetic. Searcy details segregated quarters for Black workers that I wouldn’t call fit for dogs. Still, Oak Ridge was one of the first high schools in the South to desegregate after the war.

Workers also knew the uranium they were working with was dangerous. People injured in the labs had to go to the clinic rather than the hospital because their work was so secret the government officials were afraid they'd talk. Searcy's own mother received a dangerous dose of radiation that scientists puzzled over her ability to survive. Yet, the amazing woman lived into her 90's.

As for the children who came to Oak Ridge with their parents whose reunion is spoken. They were the first class to graduate from one of the best high schools in the nation. Many are still alive today. One gorgeous lady was still dancing at reunions. They have a 10% divorce rate as opposed to the national rate of 50%. There’s a lot to learn from these stories about perseverance, positive attitudes, and good values. And the much-disputed section about sex among seventy-year-olds is written with a lively sense of humor.

Their individual stories are touching. My particular favorite was about Sophie, a Hungarian immigrant, who came to Oak Ridge after the war. The book not only details her experience during Nazi occupation, but how she coped afterwards.

If I could have one complaint about the book, I wish Mr. Searcy had cited some of his sources in the historical references. Not that I doubt his research, but readers like me who are interested in leaning more about Oak Ridge could use a bibliography. Then again, that task may be mine to complete.

To purchase a copy of The Last Reunion, go to Jay Searcy’s homepage and follow the instructions:

Monday, February 7, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Pull of Gravity -- Gae Polisner

The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner

• Reading level: Young Adult
• Hardcover: 208 pages
• Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) (May 10, 2011)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 0374371938
• ISBN-13: 978-0374371937

Ah, at last a book with many of my favorite things all mixed up. But, what do you get when you mix troll dolls, Slinkies, John Steinbeck, and Yoda? From past experience, I can tell you some of my best laid culinary plans have gone wildly astray. Take for example, the peach, date, banana ice cream my Aunt Jeanne and I whipped up one summer. She and I loved the sweet caramel colored confection, but we were the only ones. The rest of the family wanted vanilla.

Gae Polisner, on the other hand, has created a winning combination in The Pull of Gravity. She’s blended a tasty mix of timeless classic literature, pop culture, and kitschy fun that’s not only readable, but highly memorable and instructional as well.

Nick Gardner’s fifteen, which is really bad enough for anyone. Add to that, his Dad’s suffering extreme depression since the family moved from Manhattan to the suburbs and has spent most of his time lying on the couch gaining a massive amount of weight. Abruptly, his Dad decides to get off that couch and walk the 170 miles back to Manhattan in order to regain his physique and self esteem. His older brother’s changing fast, too—getting interested in girls and other related activities that are just TMI for Nick.

Add to that, his best friend’s dying. This isn’t news, exactly. Reginald Reyland, aka The Scoot, was born with progeria, a genetic defect which results in babies being born with an eighty year old’s system and a vastly shortened lifespan. Scoot handles his impending demise with far more grace and aplomb than the adults in his life. His RN Mom works double shifts at the hospital and leaves the kid mostly on his own and Scoot’s Dad left shortly after he was born unable to cope with the emotional crisis having a handicapped kid creates.

Scoot’s got one dying wish, which Nick learns from Jaycee Amato, Scoot’s odd new female friend. While Scoot’s Dad’s never been a part of his life, he’d like the man to have the signed first edition copy of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men he left for him. Jaycee suggests they honor Scoot’s wish and find Guy Reyland and hopefully bring him back to see Scoot one last time.

Together, they plan and embark on a journey to find Scoot’s Dad with only an out of date Rochester, NY address to go on. As the Robert Burns’ poem for which the Steinbeck novel’s name derived goes: The best laid plans of mice and men oft times go astray.

The Pull of Gravity offers much for readers of all ages. The novel’s populated with characters you won’t forget, but you wish you could make friends with. For a non-POV character who’s mostly off-screen and seen from the eyes of others, Scoot manages to come alive with a memorable mix of heartbreak and humor. Jaycee Amato, the brains behind the master plan, is also one of the most vividly drawn non-POV characters I’ve seen in a long time. She’s got a fashion sense which is a mix of Tim Burton and vintage toys and the kind of heart any friend would want to have.

In addition, the issues of family disintegration and loss of friends are some of the hardest people of any age have to face, particularly together. Married couples grow apart without having a physical move as inciter. Most of us don’t risk losing a close contemporary until we’re quite a bit older. Each step the characters take isn’t just a point of grief, but an opportunity for growth which is an amazing lesson for readers of all ages.

Speaking of lessons, the best YA doesn’t just entertain readers, it provides what my friends in the education field call “teachable moments.” Ms. Polisner handles disability in a frank and wise manner. Tolerance of differences and keeping one’s promises are the big themes of The Pull of Gravity and lessons each of us could learn at whatever stage of our lives we’re going through.

The highest compliment I could give any book is I wish I’d written it. I also wish I’d had The Pull of Gravity to read when I was fifteen.

Rebecca Kyle, February 2011