Twelve-year old Jamie Dexter is a United States Army brat, and proud of it (HOO-ah!) She’s our narrator in Frances O’Roark Dowell’s Shoot the Moon. She’s traveled the world with her father, the colonel (whom she calls “Colonel,”) her mother, and TJ, her brother five years her senior. Along the way she’s internalized the abstract concepts of duty and honor and sacrifice. But in the summer of 1969 TJ enlists in the Army and goes to Vietnam, leading the entire family to question their military lives.
For Jamie, it’s the summer before 8th grade, and she fulfills her sense of duty by volunteering at the base recreation center. She sweeps and empties ashtrays, but there’s really not much to do. Private Hollister, a soldier about her brother’s age, manages the rec center, and the two begin a summer-long gin rummy game that frames their conversations about life and war.
TJ is quickly shipped to Vietnam to serve as a medic. He sends rolls of film to Jamie, with instructions to develop and print them. Another soldier teaches Jamie photo processing skills using the rec center darkroom, and she sees the war through her brother’s camera lens. The first few rolls feature beer-drinking soldiers, exotic plants, and pretty nurses. But as the summer progresses, the subject matter turns darker – wounded soldiers, chaotic after-battle scenes, and frightened civilians. Jamie’s ideas about war evolve with each roll of film she develops. She grows to see the complexity and unpredictable nature of conflict, which leads her to question her identity. At one point she muses,
“… I knew that if I wanted TJ home, then I had lost my good feelings about the war forever. I had lost the excitement that used to get me so wound up I could hardly calm back down again for hours. I lost the green Army men under the shady trees and the thrill I felt when I imagined being an ambulance driver in a combat zone. I lost hooah and combat ready, sir. And when you got right down to it, if I lost all those things, I had practically lost my own self.”
Dowell’s examination of Jamie is sensitive and thoughtful. Jamie’s a smart kid, and a thinker. She’s comfortable figuring out things for herself, and not afraid to come to terms with her feelings. Dowell provides a good cast of supporting characters, including Private Hollister who dreads going into battle, and war-weary Sergeant Byrd. Jamie’s developmentally-delayed friend Cindy, whose brother is also in Vietnam, is an unlikely sounding board for Jamie. Cindy accepts her brother’s peril, because he’s a soldier – he’s supposed to go to war. Jamie longs for such simplicity.
Francis O’Roark Dowell is an accomplished writer, and Shooting the Moon displays her skill. One of her earlier books, Dovey Coe, is one of my favorite tween books. But Dovey Coe – a coming of age story wrapped in a murder mystery – has a layer lacking from Shooting the Moon. Sure, we get to know Jamie and her family, and we witness a pivotal time period in Jamie’s development, but the book feels more like a working character study than a complete novel. There’s lots of character, but not much plot.
Still, Shooting the Moon is a good addition to any middle school library or classroom collection. Certainly, the book is a great tool for teaching characterization and voice. Thoughtful students will enjoy reading it, and will likely seek other titles by this talented author.