What teenager relishes the idea of giving up summer vacation for a 2,000-mile cross-country road trip with her grandmother? Even though the grandmother in question wears stilettos, fake nails, and a flippy wig, the prospect of hours cooped up in a car with her doesn’t interest Octavia and her older sister Tali.
They’ve spent Sunday dinners with their grandmother since forever. What’s left to know about Mare? But when the car doors slam shut and she starts to tell her story, the girls discover things that change the way they think about their grandmother, and even American history.
The “Then” chapters of Mare’s War, told in Mare’s voice, take teen readers back to the daily life of a young enlisted African-American woman during World War II. Octavia and Tali hear how their grandmother lied about her age to join the Women’s Army Corps and escape her small family farm – and her mother’s boyfriend. A 17-year-old, shipped overseas, with little knowledge of the world outside the Deep South, Mare coped, worried over her younger sister back in Alabama, and grew more than she dared dream.
It’s Octavia’s young voice we hear in the “Now” chapters. She and her older sister bicker back and forth, disagree with their grandmother about everything from her cigarettes to their music, and send postcards that, in the beginning of the trip are griping laments but, by the trip’s end , sound more like “Wish You Were Here.”
“Mare’s War” chronicles a part of our history that is seldom written about but compelling to discover, and Tanita Davis makes it come alive. As the grandmother chronicles her unit – the 6888th battalion – telling of food rationing, blackout curtains, and mattresses stuffed with straw, she also makes the girls aware of the serious prejudice African-American soldiers experienced.
Halfway through their story, Octavia seems to forget Mare is the geriatric grandmother they’d dreaded sacrificing the summer for: “[I]t was pretty funny to hear Mare going on and on about how she’d just loved Lena Horne when she was young ... and how her friend Dovey Borland had had a set of pipes just like Lena’s. Sometimes Mare sounds so much like me and my friends I forget she’s old.”
It’s a great moment of realization for granddaughters and teen readers alike. What started out as a forced march, albeit in a red sports car, turns into a loving, perfectly told road trip tale of two girls who discover inherited treasure, complete with family history, in their own backyard.
Augusta Scattergood is a freelance writer in Madison, N.J.