Duck and Cover: Countdown by Deborah Wiles
WATCH PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S ADDRESS ON TELEVISION.
THIS EVENING AT 7:00 P.M.
A seemingly ordinary assignment for a sixth-grade class, this notation in Franny Chapman's notebook is an early warning of an event that changes everything. It is Monday, October 22, 1962, and as her family assembles around their black-and-white TV, what they hear is Kennedy's Cuban missile crisis address.
Franny's school, Camp Springs Elementary, near Andrews Air Force Base where her father is stationed, has already been designated an official fallout shelter, and just Friday the sunny October recess was split with an air raid siren which terrified the students, who hurried to practice their just-learned "Duck and Cover" skills.
Now Franny feels as if her safe and secure world is falling away beneath her feet. When she rushes home, hoping for reassurance from her mom, she finds her away and her Uncle Ott, his World War I medals all pinned askew on his baggy sweater, surrounded by survival equipment and digging a fallout shelter in the front yard of their home. Franny and her little third-grade-brother, who carries his much-read copy of Our Friend the Atom everywhere, are drafted by her distraught uncle to dig up the yard, in full view of her friends and the scandalized neighbors. In his frenzy, Uncle Ott collapses, unconscious, leaving Franny to deal with the situation until her college-age sister and mother return.
Uncle Ott recovers at the base hospital, but the loss of security seems to reverberate through Franny's life. Her little brother feels betrayed by the friendly atom. Her older sister Jo Ellen receives mysterious letters which she hurriedly conceals, and when Franny and her best friend Margie, playing Nancy Drew, purloin one of the letters, they find it contains a message which appears to their eleven-year-old eyes unintelligible.
Then Jo Ellen stops coming home, and Franny's mom is evasive, saying only that she is staying with a friend in the dorm, working on projects. Franny senses that her mother and sister have had a major disagreement, and she intuits that that it has something to do with that coded message. Margie is convinced that the letter proves that Franny's sister is a spy, one of those "Kommonists" Uncle Ott raves about, and passes on her theory to their friends at school. Little brother Drew stops eating and is clearly frightened, her dad is abruptly put on alert and sent on missions he cannot describe to them, and despite the familiarity of their meatloaf-on-Monday dinners and her round of daily chores and homework, middle-child Franny feels the growing distance between the members of her family and the loss of her best friend acutely.
Deborah Wiles newest, Countdown (Scholastic, 2010), the first in her proposed Sixties Trilogy, shows sheltered Air Force brat Franny Chapman as she suddenly discovers the outside world in events which crack open the smooth surface of her comfortable life. With the threat of nuclear war over her head, even small events make her feel lost--a teacher's look of disapproval, a fight with her best friend which sends both to the principal, and her first boy-girl Halloween party. All normal events seem caught up in the events of the struggles of the Cold War which sends her dad off on secret flights and the civil rights movement which draws her sister away. Described as "documentary fiction," interspersed with news accounts, popular songs, photos, advertisements, and quotes from world leaders and iconic personalities of the early sixties, this semi-autobiographical story provides middle readers with a historical education and a real-life look at a child coming of age in times as turbulent as our own.
Franny's family and friendships shift and are re-formed to adjust to the times as this story unfolds, and the reader comes to see that humans are capable of great resilience and flexibility in the face of new threats. It is perhaps ironic that among the documentary material Wiles presents to bring the 1960s to life within this book are the shrewd but insightful words sent to President Kennedy from an unlikely prophet, Nikita Krushchev, in October of 1962:
WE AND YOU OUGHT NOT PULL ON THE ENDS OF A ROPE IN WHICH ARE TIED THE KNOTS OF WAR.
BECAUSE THE MORE THE TWO OF US PULL, THE TIGHTER THE KNOT WILL BE TIED.
Wiles' Countdown is a serious yet reassuring look at the way members of one family, all ages, met an earlier generational challenge. Her characters live and breathe before us, as real as yesterday's memories, and her description of 1960s family life--seemingly self-contained within its world of early bedtimes, pink kitchen appliances and pear salads--is spot-on for the period. But the real value of this novel is in its message that, despite threats from without and within, people can choose to live bravely in their own time and make of it what they will.