Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell

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I’m reading Frances O’Roark Dowell’s novel, Shooting the Moon, in preparation for a discussion with seventh grade students next week.  The students are reading Dowell’s novel as a companion to their history class discussion of the late 1960s and Vietnam.

What I’ve been thinking about is that Dowell’s novel is not so much about Vietnam as it is about complexity.  While the war in Vietnam is at the book’s center, what Jamie, the main character, is beginning to understand is that nothing is as simple as it seemed when she was younger.  Jamie is twelve, and true to her age, she says right up front: “I was six months away from turning thirteen and I thought I knew everything.”  What she “knows” is that war is glorious, and if she could she would enlist herself.

The premise of the book is that Jamie’s older brother, T.J., is in Vietnam, and he send rolls of undeveloped film home to Jamie.  Following an interesting passage where Jamie (and the reader) learns how film is developed in a dark room, she begins looking at T.J.’s pictures.  Of course, Jamie’s idea of war is challenged by the realistic pictures her brother has taken.  The story unfolds as you might expect.  Slowly, Jamie understands that while war may be necessary, it is not what she had imagined.

In my view, there are two things that make this book work so effectively.  One is that Dowell herself was an “army brat.”  She understands what she’s writing about and knows the answers are not simple.  The other thing I like is that Shooting the Moon introduces “grey” in an age-appropriate and compelling way.  From my experience, 12-year-olds are just beginning to transition from black and white to shades of grey.  They are often still looking for who is “good” and who is “bad.”  If only things were that simple.  But Dowell gently leads the reader to an undertanding of more complexity.

In one way, the book reminds me of Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.  That book is not resolved easily either.  For many children, understanding that India’s mother is not returning home to India and her father is the first time they have encountered a book without a traditionally “happy” ending.  What India learns in DiCamillo’s book is that we can’t always have everything we wish for.  It’s the same for Jamie.  She has an idea of what her brother’s experience in Vietnam will be, but as she matures, she sees that nothing is really that simple.