My son is going into tenth grade this year. When I pulled up his summer reading list on his school’s website and saw All Quiet on the Western Front, I immediately reacted “Oh, I loved that book!” My son, who is learning disabled and has never loved any book (which alone causes me to feel a kind of grieving anyone who loves to read will share), looked skeptically at me. I hurried to a bookshelf in our office and pulled off my worn textbook from middle school with my only copy, the copy I read in seventh grade. AQWF wasn’t typical middle school reading, but I went to an experimental school run by the University of Pittsburgh where we were encouraged to read anything. I still remember my seventh grade English teacher’s skepticism as he asked me if I really wanted to read that, because most of my peers were reading Judy Blume, and they were reading her, in large part, for what was then shock value. But I had no interest in finding out what my friends were whispering about. I wanted to read AQWF because it was about war, and I was a child of war living among other children who were not. Only one of my friends growing up, Kelley, had a father who’d been in a war, and it was a different war than mine, although we are only a few weeks apart in age. Not only did my father serve in the Pacific, his brother served in Germany and had been a German POW. An uncle on my mother’s side was killed in Germany. And, just for good measure, my dad’s youngest brother was in the Korean War. Kelley’s dad was a silver star fighter pilot in Vietnam and one of my father’s closest friends.
War, the War, was always spoken about in my house growing up. My father never talked about the trauma of it to anyone but my mother. But he told stories that made dinner guests laugh and gasp in surprise. Only once in my life did I ever hear him talk about anything touching the details of death, and that was because a younger friend pushed him, asking him question after question, and he answered them. But he always had nightmares, and we knew that there were questions you didn’t ask, things you didn’t talk about. The same was true for my uncle, the POW. Only at his funeral did I learn how the Germans had starved them, and when they tried to steal food for the sickest of their fellow prisoners, they were beaten and left to die. My uncle came home with a foot that needed multiple surgeries and an Army that wanted documentation of his injury. It took him a while to convince the U.S. government that the Germans hadn’t bothered to keep records for them.
So when my English teacher told me, no warned me, that I would have to finish AQWF if I started it, I had no reservations. “Oh, I will,” I promised with all the faith of a twelve-year-old.
And I read it diligently, faithfully, reverently. I tried to understand my father better through it. I tried see war from a place I had never seen it, even though it surrounded me every day. Spoiler alert: When Kat died, I cried as if my heart were broken.
I never again read a “kids” book. AQWF was, for me, a rite of passage, a coming of literary age, and I dropped the cloak of children’s fiction and started reading books that were written for adults. I missed a lot of children’s classics because of this. Some I have gone back and read as an adult. Some I regret having missed when I was still young.
Thirty years after reading AQWF, there are still parts of that novel I remember vividly. When I think back to the choice of that novel, I am grateful to Mr. MacDonald (later Dr. MacDonald who went on to become the school’s head). I am grateful for the trust he showed in me, I am grateful for the skeptical smile that played on his face as he gave me permission to read it, I am grateful for the praise he bestowed when I had finished such a tough book for a still-little girl.
I know that AQWF won’t be the book that makes my learning disabled son suddenly love to read. I know that he won’t find in it what I found, that he’s not even looking for what I was when I read it (although he, too, is sadly a child of war).
But just maybe it will be a bond, a something, between us that we will share, a place of connection. Because that’s really what books are all about anyway.