This one managed to stay under my radar for awhile. I have no excuses - if it's been under yours as well, consider this your wake up call to get a copy for yourself ASAP!
Octavia and her older sister Tali are under strict orders from their parents to look after their grandmother, Mare, as she takes them on a road trip from California to a family reunion in Alabama. Neither sister is very enthusiastic - Mare isn't your ordinary grandmother, from her name to her long painted finger nails, to driving like a maniac. She's an embarrassment more than anything else.
But the long drive leaves plenty of opportunities to talk (and talking is something Mare loves to do). She regales her granddaughters with stories from her long life, from working as a maid and helping raise her sister in Alabama...to joining the Women's Army Corp in World War II! Mare was a member of the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-female, all-African-American battalion to serve in WWII. Mare tells of the extensive training she underwent, the harrowing journey across the Atlantic to England, and serving her tour of duty overseas, where attitudes towards blacks were far, far different from in the US.
I think if this had strictly been Mare's story, we'd be hearing this talked about in the same breath as Flygirl - two very different stories of African-American women in WWII, but similar in some respects. However, Mare's War feels a bit didactic at times; after any major revelation in Mare's story we need to cut back to Tali and Octavia reacting in horror that people were ever so uninformed. There are reaction chapters for everything from the implied abuse Mare and her sister suffered from their mother's boyfriends to racism in Europe to the revelation of a lesbian friend. While I appreciated the inclusion of these details in Mare's narrative, I felt like we were being hit over the head with the message that people in the past were Wrong (which they totally were, but did we need that message repeated with every injustice Mare faced?).
I absolutely loved Mare, both as a young woman and as a grandmother. I would have loved to have her as a grandmother when I was growing up. Well, I probably wouldn't have liked being dragged on a road trip, but other than that I thought she was just awesome. It's because of her characterization that I'm including this book in my list of books read for the Women Unbound reading challenge. Defining fiction books that fit into the challenge is a little trickier than non-fiction, but as this is a look at an important and interesting aspect of women's (and African-American) history, I feel it counts. Plus, an individual woman doesn't get more unbound than Mare!
Cover comments: Not one, not two, but three African American women on this cover!
At the book jacket literary cafe, the art director from Simon & Schuster mentioned that they'll often go with illustrated covers for books that are intended more for academic markets - books that fit in well with various bits of curriculum. The cover, combined with the occasional heavy-handedness on the Messages in the text, makes me think there was probably a big push to get this into classrooms and libraries.