A Child on the Home Front

Love You, Soldier – written by Amy Hest, illustrated by Sonja Lamut
Candlewick Press, 2000, reprint of original 1991 edition

Amy Hest has contributed so many meaningful children’s books to the modern canon, including her most recent, The Summer We Found the Baby, in which Hest returns to the World War II home front setting of this earlier classic.  Not only the setting, but the central device of seeing the war through the eyes of a child, unite these books, which encourage young readers to understand both a specific historical era and the personal tribulations of one girl as inextricably tied together.  Hest is an expert at using simple and authentic language without ever patronizing children.  Love You, Soldier is a work of artful innocence. There are no extraneous elements, no anachronistic attempts to the characters more like contemporary individuals, no grand statements about the meaning of love and loss.  This is a wonderful and poignant story about a girl and her mother living in New York City during the war, waiting for a father who will never return.

Seven-year-old Katie Roberts lives in a New York City apartment building with her mother.  The building is a hive of activity, where neighbors share one another’s lives.  A widow named Mrs. Leitstein is a surrogate grandmother to Katie, the kind of older person who intuitively empathizes with her young friends.  Then Katie’s life abruptly changes: The war came and my father left in a uniform. It was olive green.”  Katie mentally arranges each physical item associated with her father: his notebook, his socks, his fountain pen. She draws a picture for him; “he wrapped that picture like he was wrapping diamonds. He slipped it in his duffel and zipped the fat brown zipper.” Each detail of object and emotion which Katie records becomes a tangible way for her to keep her father alive and with her.

The book is full of New York references, presented in the matter-of-fact way that only a child who had always lived there would use.  In the taxi to Pennsylvania Station, her parents hold hands “all the way from 109th Street to 33rd.” The menu at the Automat, where diners put coins in a slot and retrieve their food from a glass door, includes “egg salad on rye. A glass of milk. And, of course, lemon meringue pie.” Katie’s mother and her friend, Louise, reminisce about the time when they skipped school, sneaking off to a concert at Radio City Music Hall, where they watched a performance by “a singer with blue eyes.”  Readers familiar with New York may or may not remember some of these settings and recognize the allusions, but even if they don’t, they will recognize the sense of attachment of a child to her home.

 When Louise, pregnant with her first child, needs support while her own husband is in the service, she comes to stay with Katie and her mother, forming the kind of supportive ad-hoc family which war sometimes imposes.  The Jewish holiday of Passover is different this year. Instead of mother, father, and daughter, Katie celebrates with her mother, Louise, Louise’s brother Sam Gold, who is a solider on leave, and Mrs. Leitstein.   This new formation doesn’t negate old traditions, the “silver candlesticks…last minute trips to the butcher…small glasses with wine for the grownups and grape juice for me.”  The appearance of Sam subtly foreshadows the way in which temporary arrangements may become lasting when distant events dictate the structures of personal lives.

The novel has new life as well as loss. When Louise goes into labor during a massive blizzard, it is Katie who takes on the adult role of getting her to the hospital. With no taxis available, Katie is surprised and confused to find her own sense of resolve giving her the strength to take charge: “’We will walk.’ I said it in a strange, strong voice.’” When Louise is reluctant, Katie reasons with her, “You cannot have the baby out here in a blizzard, Louise.” There’s no arguing with that logic, even though it would be expected from an adult, not a little girl.  Katie, like the rest of the country, has to adapt.  But when a telegram arrives with “a stranger in a uniform and black leggings,” Katie and her mother know that life has they had known it is over.

Grief has different contexts.  So many families lost fathers, sons, and brothers during the war that the aura of collective dignity might seem to mitigate some of their pain. Of course, it didn’t. Katie is heartbroken, and resentful when, after the war, Sam Gold persistently writes to Katie’s mother, renewing their friendship and hoping for a lasting relationship.  When Katie confesses to Mrs. Leitstein that “I have a problem,” the older woman advice about coping with loss and giving the future a chance is far from a panacea.  Still, she gently articulates her philosophy to Katie, that “Love is risky…but you know something…It’s worth it,” as the unobtrusive core of Love You, Soldier.

(Hest continued Katie’s story in two sequels, The Private Notebook of Katie Roberts, Age 11, and The Great Green Notebook of Katie Roberts, Who Just Turned 12 on Monday, which I will cover in a future post.)

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