Countdown

CountdownCountdown by Deborah Wiles. Scholastic Press 2010. 400 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780545106054.

Once I ordered a nonfiction book for a school library because it included “primary sources”. I was disappointed to find that “primary sources” meant two or three one sentence quotes. Countdown really does include primary sources. It’s a documentary novel. The documentary portion of the novel captures the national politics and international politics of the early 60s, as well as the social climate. This part of the novel is woven in between the story of Franny’s day-to-day life as an 11-year-old during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On the international scene, Kennedy and Khrushchev are engaged in a staring match over the missiles in Cuba. On the national scene, blacks are protesting their treatment in the segregated South. There is a buildup of military advisors in Vietnam. Manned space exploration captures the country’s imagination. The documentary portion includes short biographies of Pete Seeger, JFK and civil rights activist Mary Lou Hamer, as well as many, many quotes from news and government agencies and from speeches. It also includes a remarkable number of photographs.

In Franny’s life, things are changing. Her older sister has become involved with a group of people trying to change the world. Her best friend is acting like her worst enemy. Her father’s uncle responds to the threat of nuclear attack in a way that makes no sense to Franny. And on top of all of this, the missile crisis makes her afraid she may not live long enough to grow up.

On the day after Kennedy’s speech to the nation about the Cuban missile crisis, Franny feels that everything has changed. The “duck and cover” instructions become more intrusive in Franny’s story. Her thoughts seem to be returning more and more frequently to the fear that she’ll die tomorrow. She’s been composing a letter to Khrushchev for some time, but the crisis makes it even more important that she try to tell him that the citizens of the US aren’t so different from the citizens of the Soviet Union. It’s as if by communicating to Khrushchev, she can act in a political way to make the situation better.

I was four years old during the Cuban missile crisis. I’d been going to Pete’s Seeger concerts for four years by that time. A year later my parents went to the March on Washington.  As I grew I became terrified of nuclear war, just as Franny was. Wiles has rendered my experience of the 60s very accurately.

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