Cynthia Kadohata is the author of the Newbery Award winning book, Kira-Kira as well as last year’s Cybil Finalist for Middle Grade Fiction, Weedflower. They’re both great books, and this new book, Cracker is just as good. But unlike Kira-Kira, a book about a Japanese American girl named Katie remembering her childhood, and Weedflower, the story of a young middle school age girl who is sent with her family to a Japanese interment camp during WW II, Cracker is not about being Japanese American, and it’s not about a young teenage or pre-teen girl.
It’s a war story about a seventeen year old young man named Rick Hanski and his experiences as a dog handler in Vietnam toward the end of the American involvement in Vietnam’s civil war. Cracker is Rick’s dog, a German shepherd, and part of the story is told from the point of view of the dog. This switch back and forth from Rick’s point of view to Cracker’s doesn’t always work. Sometimes the change from one to the other is even done in mid-paragraph with no warning, but the story’s so good that I was willing to ignore the difficulties in role changing that I had to jump through as a reader. Ms. Kadohata doesn’t anthropomorphize Cracker, the dog, too much, but Cracker’s thoughts are a little bit sophisticated for a German shepherd.
Yeah, this book is for dog lovers, but it’s also for guys, or girls, who are thinking about joining the military. Or it might be just the book for sending over to a soldier friend in Iraq or Afghanistan. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone younger than, say, twelve years old, however. The language is relatively clean, and there are no “mature situations” as they say in the movie disclaimers, but the violence of a real shooting war is described in all of its, well, violence.
Rick, the protagonist, is a great character. He’s been told that he’s a “generalist” not a “specialist”, that her doesn’t really “apply himself”, and that he doesn’t have any particular gifts or talents. Nevertheless, Rick decides that he’s going to “whip the world.” He doesn’t know how or where or when, but as he kind of stumbles into the army, then into dog handling, then over to Vietnam, Rick grows into a man of integrity and purpose. I want to give this book to Computer Guru Son, age 22, but I know he wouldn’t read it with the picture of the dog on the front and the subtitle “the best dog in Vietnam.” That subtitle makes the book sound and look way too juvenile, and I’m afraid it’s going to be a hard sell to those young adults that I think would really enjoy it the most.
Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata is nominated for the Cybil Award for Middle Grade Fiction.