Battle Fatigue, by Mark Kurlansky

28 Mar

2011, Walker & Company, ISBN 978-0802722645

Plot Summary: Battle Fatigue traces a young boy’s evolution from post-World War II child to Vietnam-era objector. Joel Bloom, a 7-year old boy in 1955, is surrounded by World War II veterans: his father, uncle, and most of the men in his neighborhood served, and he and his friends grow up playing army games where they fight the Germans and the Japanese. While he understands that war changes people – his uncle gets “the stare” and talks about Europe and his father, a veteran of the Pacific Theatre, does not talk about the war – Joel believes that the men in his neighborhood have “done great things and someday I would be called on to do a great thing.”

Growing up, Joel’s experiences influence a shift in his beliefs. Nuclear bomb drills at school scare him and his feelings about Communists are conflicted. He does not understand why America demands some nations get rid of their weapons while we retain ours. Joel sees prejudice in his own neighborhood when he is the only boy in the neighborhood to befriend a German exchange student named Karl. He is troubled more and more by war and the ethics involved as he becomes a teenager and sees the coming Vietnam War – a war he knows will be “his” war. Seeing the shells of people that return from their tours of duty, including a childhood friend of his, disturbs him. In college, Joel becomes part of the antiwar movement and considers running away to Canada when his deferment is up, a decision that disappoints his father.

Critical Evaluation: Battle Fatigue provides a thoughtful look at the evolution of a pacifist. It shows how a child, raised in the post-War environment, evolved into a Vietnam protestor by showing how a person’s insight changes. Joel questions what he sees around him, from the fear of Communism to the realization that not all Germans, even the children of Nazis, are evil. He discovers that there is no black and white in war, and each war – Korea, Vietnam – comes with increasing shades of grey.

Kurlansky provides good character and plot development, giving us backgrounds on Joel and his family and friends throughout the novel. We get the evolution not only of Joel’s thought, but the friends around him, and we see the human cost of war with Joel’s uncle and friend Dickey. The only issue I had with the book was the overall narrative, which, for a teen novel, seemed a bit simplistic – it read more like a middle grade level book.

Reviews: VOYA: “…in following Joel’s journey from child to adult, readers can learn a great deal about the profound impact of war and how the battles, even if they are internal, can be life altering.”

School Library Journal: “The novel fulfills an important role for teens who may not know about the personal side of men who escaped the Vietnam War by leaving the country, and the reasons they did so.”

Awards: No awards as yet.

Reader’s Annotation: As a little boy living in post-World War II America, Joel sees war as being called to do a great thing – but as he grows up, he begins seeing things very differently.

Author Information: Author Mark Kurlansky writes primarily general interest non-fiction for adults. His website offers information about his books, upcoming events, articles, and a gallery of artwork from his books.

Genre: Realistic fiction. Subgenres: war, political protest, social change.

Booktalking Ideas: Joel says several times in Battle Fatigue that “his war” is coming; he knows that Vietnam will be “his war” – do you think that every generation has a war that defines them? What other events do you feel define your generation?

Reading Level/Interest Age: 14+

Challenge Issues/Defense: Anti-American sentiment regarding war. Defense: This is a teen’s-eye view of the 1960s and the protests that occurred during that time.

Why did you include this book in the titles you selected?

With the Milennials’ generation being defined by war – they were toddlers and preschoolers on September 11, 2001 – this book provides an important look at the last generation, the Baby Boomers, to be defined by war and how they dealt with it.


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