War and Millie McGonigle – by Karen Cushman
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021
Millie McGonigle is a twelve-year-old girl living in San Diego, California in 1941. She is dealing with many issues, including her family’s financial distress due to the Great Depression, her mother’s apparent favoritism for a younger sister, and the death of her beloved grandmother. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, an onslaught of changes challenges her further. This novel is not particularly nostalgic about an era when unity against an external enemy gave many Americans a sense of purpose; Millie’s psychological state is dominated by grief and anger. She carries a notebook with her everywhere, making notes and drawings in this “Book of Dead Things.” Karen Cushman has created a character who is not initially easy to love: morbid, bitter, and self-centered, even for a pre-teen. Because she is a wonderful writer, she allows readers to have a range of responses to her character, following Millie on her incomplete and not so sentimental journey towards change.
The McGonigle family is far from perfect. Her father’s good-natured jokes sometimes veer into insensitivity. Her mom, a frustrated poet submitting verse jingles to advertisers, seems momentarily jealous when Millie actually wins five dollars in a contest. A middle-aged cousin, Edna, has come to live with them. She seems to have a mild psychiatric or neurological disability, but her insistence on using German phrases for no apparent reason as the war approaches was worse than irritating. Millie describes Edna’s physical appearance, and particularly odors, in repulsive detail. The sibling relationships in the novel are the most troubling. While Millie is loving and tolerant towards her six-year-old brother, Pete, the middle child, Lily, is a source of outrage to her older sister. Lily suffers from an unspecific respiratory condition, making her vulnerable to frequent illnesses. Cushman doesn’t merely imply that the attention this earns Lily makes Millie feel ambivalent towards her younger sister. Millie’s feelings are actively hostile. (She is also a bookish child, and compares Lily to Colin in The Secret Garden: “Colin was a drip like Lily until he got healthy and nice.”
Cushman’s descriptions of the natural environment are beautiful and seamlessly related to Millie’s feelings about the world. Her seaside community is full of sailors about to be deployed, and expanding aircraft and shipping industries bring the impact of the war home. Millie is introspective, and she also turns to different people in her life, from close to more superficial acquaintances. Eventually she finds some answers from their advice, and from observing how they cope with fear, disappointment, even grief. War and Millie McGonigle is an unusual novel for middle-grade readers, with a main character who is aware of her sense of difference from those around her. Cushman presents her with all her flaws, as well as her deep sensitivity as she finds a way to keep afloat for the duration.