Early Sunday Morning: The Pearl Harbor Diary of Amber Billows (Dear America series) – Barry Denenberg, Scholastic, 2001
Some of you may remember fondly the Dear America series of historical novels published by Scholastic between 1996 and 2004, or their reissue, along with some new books. Each was initially published in hard back with a ribbon marker; the covers did not list the author’s name. The authors, in fact, included several well-known middle grade and young adult novelists. Barry Denenberg wrote several, including Early Sunday Morning, an account of the Japanese surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. Amber Billows’ father is a journalist, and her family is abruptly relocated to Oahu, unaware of the impending disaster. Like other books in the series, it both follows a formula and, yet, pushes the boundaries of that successful formula.
Each Dear America book takes the form of diary entries, so the reader experiences the young heroine’s life through her young, unreliable narrative voice. A background section fills in the historical facts, along with photographs or drawings from the period. The girl telling her own story is often as unaware of its significance as the reader; this encourages empathy and identification with the story. Amber Billows is not completely likeable; nor is her family. At times I was taken aback by the risks the author took in creating a strongly opinionated mom, whose tough exterior sometimes seems to conceal a tough interior, as well. She makes it clear that the dinner parties at which she is obligated to officiate to support her husband’s career are something of a trial to her. Mom really hates isolationists! “She especially hates Charles Lindbergh, even though the rest of the world loves him.” Given Lindbergh’s odious political views, of which many Americans are unaware, this was really refreshing in a children’s book.
The Dear America series represents a kind of transition between middle grade and young adult fiction. The diary entries themselves are often simple and unsophisticated, yet the content may be aimed more at older readers. Early Sunday Morning has many references to alcohol consumption by adults. Realistically, Amber explains how her father deliberately uses it to get his unsuspecting guests to loosen up and talk, while he himself maintains control by sticking to seltzer. Amber accepts this technique in a rather adult way, as part of her father’s unusual job, the same job which demands that she pick up and leave every school to attend and acclimate herself to a different one. No wonder she is skeptical about the desirability of making friends. She seems to survive by assimilating the values which her parents, both dedicated and devoted to their children, have communicated to her through their loving, but inevitably imperfect, parenting.
When the naval base is attacked, Amber’s mother, a nurse, immediately rushes to the hospital to tend to critically wounded men, whose injuries are described in frightening detail. Amber joins her mom; the level of responsibility which she is permitted to assume seems somewhat atypical, but serves to dramatize the terror which engulfs the lives of everyone on the island. One moment which I found dissonant was Amber’s mother’s encounter in the hospital with a severely injured officer, who had earlier roused her ire with his refusal to understand the nature of the Japanese threat. Amber observes her mother’s reaction to this man, previously an object of her contempt, but now a pitiful victim: “When she looked down at Lieutenant Lockhart, her expression was difficult to decipher. It was disdainful and sympathetic at the same time.” “Disdainful” is not usually an emotion associated with a nurse tending to a patient in her own country’s military; here is where Denenberg challenges the formula to allow for bitterness and anger. After all, this character is the same one who deliberately served scalding hot soup to guests she particularly disliked.
Part of the series involves a fictional “Epilogue,” where the author has the chance to neatly assign fates to the book’s characters. Without discouraging potential readers of Early Sunday Morning, some of the lives don’t end up walking on the sunny side of the street. Young readers unfamiliar with the War years may internalize, if only briefly, the popular song’s lyrics, which reminded Americans that “History in every century/Records an act that lives forevermore/We’ll recall, as into line we fall/The thing that happened on Hawaii’s shore.” (lyrics by Don Reid)