Book #1 for Mother Reader’s 48 Hour Book Challenge
Reading TIme: 2.5 hours
So Countdown is a “documentary novel” taking place in the fall of 1962 near Andrews Air Force Base. Franny Chapman is in fifth grade, and she has a lot going on in her life. Her best friend Margie is suddenly not a friend anymore. Franny’s sister Jo Ellen is hiding something and spending way too much time at college when she should be at home helping Franny. Chris Cavas has just moved back into the house next door, and he’s somehow grown up to resemble Del Shannon instead of Beaver Cleaver. Uncle Otts is trying to build a bomb shelter in the backyard, and everyone is worried about the Russians. What if the air raid siren goes off for real, and the Communists drop the Bomb and end the world as Franny knows it? Will “duck and cover” really be enough to save Franny and her friends and family?
I was born in 1957. In the fall of 1962, I was five years old. Our schools didn’t have kindergarten, so I wasn’t in school yet. I wondered as I was reading if that was why I didn’t remember anything about civil defense shelters or air raid drills or Bert the Turtle or “duck and cover.” So I asked Engineer Husband who’s a few years older than me and would have been about Franny’s age in 1962. He remembers civl defense shelters with the yellow triangle, but he didn’t really know their purpose. And, like me, the only drills he remembers were fire drills and tornado drills (in which you did find an inside wall away from glass and duck and cover your head). I suppose the the powers-that-be in West Texas where we grew up were a lot more worried about fires and tornadoes than atomic bombs. (Engineer Husband does remember being scared silly because his older brother told him that if Kennedy were elected in 1960, he and all his friends would be forced to go to Catholic school.)
Still, even though I don’t remember any bomb scares, I did find a lot of the cultural references in the book familiar. Ms. WIles writes about 45rpm records; I remember those. And I recognized all the songs: Runaway, Moon RIver, Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, and Monster Mash. (I wondered where the Beatles were, but apparently they didn’t “invade” until 1964.) It was fun for me to read about all of the brands and fads and events of my childhood, even if the book does take place a little before my time.
Interspersed between chapters of the fictional story about Franny and her search for peace in a chaotic world are photographs, news reports, excerpts from speeches, documentary-style reports on famous people like Truman and Kennedy and Pete Seeger. Coming from the conservative side of the aisle, I thought the reports were a little biased toward the left, especially making Kennedy into a King Arthur of Camelot. For instance, the Kennedy bio says that Kennedy “had to deal with a problem he inherited from Eisenhower: the Bay of Pigs invasion.” Yes, training for the Bay of Pigs began under Eisenhower, but Kennedy knew all about it and allowed, if not ordered, the invasion to happen under his watch. The biographical piece on Kennedy generally presents an idyllic picture of him and his presidency, saying that he “made hard decisions” and “dreamed of peace” and served for “three glittering years.” It’s not blatantly biased, though, and as an introduction to President Kennedy and the early 1960’s, it will do.
I liked the characters and the story as much I did the newsy informative sections that were sprinkled throughout the book. The fiction and nonfiction portions of the book complemented each other well. I’m planning a twentieth century study for my homeschool students and for me sometime in the next few years in which we study through the twentieth century year by year. I think Countdown would be a great introduction to the year 1962 and to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. After reading the book, we could take a look, and a listen, at the primary sources that Ms. Wiles used to inform her fiction. And then it should still be possible to interview some people who lived during 1962 and remember those times. I’m getting excited, and nostalgic, thinking about it.