I love supplementing our history studies with carefully written historical fiction, and so I was excited to receive a copy of Bertie’s War from Kregel Publications, set during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As a bonus, the Columbus Day Storm is covered–something we’ve heard mentioned on occasion, here in the Northwest, but for the first time really got an understanding of what the storm was like. (Actually, the girls could really relate to this part of the story, after last June’s weird windstorm that–thankfully–turned out to be much less than we’d thought it would be. There was that element of word-of-mouth warnings, the sky turning a weird color, the strange feeling in the air… but thankfully almost no damage, at least where we lived.)
Bertie is 12, and everything has been going wrong for her. It doesn’t help that the world around her seems to be going crazy. There are the big fears–that the Cold War is going to explode, literally, in nuclear devastation. There are smaller fears–her dad’s a logger, a dangerous job. Then there are the everyday fears, like making a fool of herself in front of her schoolmates. In short, Bertie’s shy and afraid of just about everything, and the problem just gets worse as the story goes along. She’s a bright, imaginative child who finds refuge in fantasy and make-believe… and unfortunately, such a refuge is really no refuge at all, solving no problems and even creating problems for Bertie.
The family is nominally Christian–they go to Sunday School and church, and her parents pray, separately and together, though their prayers are silent, so that Bertie never hears examples of someone talking personally to God. Her idea of prayer is the Lord’s prayer, which is fine for rote repetition but, with Bertie’s limited understanding, makes more distance between herself and God, not less. Edited to add: When I said “fine for rote repetition” I didn’t mean rote repetition is fine, just that this is how Bertie prayed–repeating the formal prayers she’d been taught, as apparently she’d never learned how to pray any other way. This aspect of the story makes for a good discussion of prayer.
I’ve heard that the father figures in your life have a lot to do with how you see God. Bertie’s father is cold and critical–though he loves his children, he is not effusive in showing his love. Her grandfather is gruff and demanding, even somewhat abusive. God is not really a part of Bertie’s life, though as the story progresses she begins to grope towards an understanding of His love and care.
Bertie doesn’t have anyone she feels she can trust… not even herself. (She keeps messing up. She’s a kid, finite and fallible, and all the magical thinking in the world is not going to make everything come out right.) The story captures the helpless, hopeless feeling of the children who grew up in the 60’s, listening to increasingly grim news reports, watching people build and stock bomb shelters, participating in “duck and cover” drills in school.
Barbara Blakey, the author, does a good job of painting the everyday details of life, while infusing the story with the constant background tension of the Cold War. In addition, she has provided discussion questions for further study at this link. (Barbara Blakey is the author of the Total Language Plus language arts program.)
Bertie’s War is aimed at a reading audience aged 10-14. I deemed the story too frightening for our sensitive 11yo. In addition, there’s a stomach-turning, upsetting scene involving disposal of a nest of baby mice. If you read this aloud, you might want to do some judicious editing.
There was one anachronism that caught my attention. The parents in the story perform CPR on a dying grandparent. That didn’t sound right to me, so I looked up the history of CPR on the web. While mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was invented in 1956 and external chest compressions had been reported as early as 1903, according to the timeline I looked at, in 1962 only doctors would have been trained in CPR, and general public training didn’t take place until the early 1970s.
While reading Bertie’s War you might also look at this ThinkQuest web page for background information and a better idea of the big picture of world events in 1962.
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Disclaimer: TOS Crew reviewers received a free copy of Bertie’s War for review. Opinions expressed here are those of this reviewer. TOS Crew reviewers receive no monetary compensation for product reviews.