The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights

The Port Chicago 50The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin. Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan Publishers), 2014. 208 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10-14. ISBN: 9781596437968.

Steve Sheinkin is a master of narrative nonfiction. He tells real stories with a fine novelist’s or a poet’s sense of what to include to make the story matter to the reader. And his stories are so fast-paced they are hard to put down. All of that is true for The Port Chicago 50. In this book Sheinkin tells the story of a group of black Navy men during World War II. The men were stationed at Port Chicago, east of San Francisco. They loaded ammunition onto ships. They had no training in handling ammunition. Only black Navy men loaded ammunition, not white Navy men. An explosion killed roughly 300 men, injured many others, and sunk two ships. The surviving members of the Port Chicago divisions were moved to Mare Island Naval Base, closer to San Francisco than they had been at Port Chicago. When the divisions were ordered to resume loading ammunition onto ships the 50 refused. They were tried for mutiny.  A young Thurgood Marshall was outraged by the racism he saw in the mutiny trial. He pressed the Secretary of the Navy to conduct an investigation. Eleanor Roosevelt also let the Secretary of the Navy know that she was concerned about the outcome of the trial.

Sheinkin sets the story of these black enlisted men at Port Chicago within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Before World War II the US military was segregated. Even the blood supply kept on hand for wounded soldiers was divided into white blood and black blood. At the beginning of the war, the decision was made to continue segregation. Besides that, blacks were only considered capable of jobs in the mess hall or other menial tasks. Loading ammunition was considered a menial task. In 1946, as a direct result of the actions of the Port Chicago 50 and the unfairness of their mutiny trial, the secretary of the Navy ordered the Navy to be desegregated. In 1948 President Truman desegregated all branches of the military.

The Port Chicago 50 are not often mentioned when the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement are listed. This book makes it clear that they should be mentioned and they should be honored.

The book is full of quotes from the Port Chicago 50 themselves and from the trial transcripts. It’s also full of photos. In the back there are source notes, as well as an extensive bibliography.

King George: What Was His Problem? The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution

King GeorgeKing George: What Was His Problem? The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution. Written by Steve Sheinkin. Illustrated by Tim Robinson. Square Fish (an imprint of MacMillan Publishers), 2009. 208 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10 and older. ISBN: 9781596435186.

Sheinkin tells the story of the American Revolution in a fun and funny way. He uses anecdotes and stories that don’t make it into history textbooks, for example he writes about the night Benjamin Franklin and John Adams shared a bed. That night Adams wanted to close the window in the room because he was afraid of catching a cold. Franklin told him to leave the window open or they would suffocate and launched into a lecture about what causes colds, a lecture that soon put Adams to sleep. In that story, Franklin and Adams become real people, not just names to memorize.

The book is made up of short chapters that cut back and forth between battles in the North and battles in the South. The chapters also cut between the political actions of the American Congress and the war. And we see Benjamin Franklin beseeching the French government to enter the war on behalf of the Americans. We also find out that when Franklin arrived in France the British were afraid he would stretch a chain from Calais to Dover and administer an electric shock to Britain that would be strong enough to overturn the island (this anecdote had me laughing out loud).

In the very beginning of the war, at the battle in Lexington, the reader sees both the British commander and the American commander telling their troops not to fire. Yet someone fired. Both sides said it was the other side. “So no one takes credit for ‘the shot heard round the world’ — the first shot of the American Revolution.”  Throughout the book Sheinkin includes both the American and the British perspective in this way.

The irony of the Declaration of Independence declaring all men are free and endowed with unalienable rights, while many of the signers owned slaves, is addressed in a short chapter.

Many, many quotes are used and it’s fun to see who said what.

At the back of the book there is extensive reference material.

The details keep the narrative moving, but by the end of the book I was impressed by my increased understanding of the timeline of the Revolution. Sheinkin is paying attention to the big picture as well as the details.

I had a great time reading this book. I also learned (or maybe re-learned) a great deal about the American Revolution.

Blog Reviews:

Becky’s Book Blog
Bookfoolery
A Fuse #8 Production
I.N.K.
The Literate Mother
Red Hot Eyebrows

Professional Reviews:

Kirkus

Nonfiction Monday

 

It’s Nonfiction Monday!

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery

The Notorious Benedict ArnoldThe Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin.  Roaring Brook Press, 2010.  Publisher recommends for ages 11-14.  352 pages.  ISBN: 9781596434868.

Benedict Arnold was a traitor. I’ve known this since I was very young. I’m sure there are times when I’ve read other bits and pieces about Arnold, but for me Benedict Arnold has simply been a synonym for the word “traitor”.

Steve Sheinkin’s political/military thriller about Arnold fascinated me. Sheinkin shows Benedict Arnold as a heroic warrior and remarkable military strategist. It seems, though, that if his name were not synonymous with traitor it might be synonymous with the term “loose cannon.”  In the battle of Saratoga, for instance, he fought tirelessly to win the battle, as he knew it had to be won, regardless of the orders of his commanding officer.

Benedict Arnold might also be synonymous with the phrase “doesn’t play well with others.” Those whom he commanded were very loyal. Those on his level or above, with the exception of George Washington, viewed him with frustrated disdain. He was not a political creature; his feelings were hurt and his pride was offended far too easily. But he lived in a political world and the higher he rose in that world the more political he needed to be.

It’s an interesting comment on his strategic skills that, had a couple of things going right that went wrong, his plan against the Colonists might very well have won the war for the British.

John Andre, Arnold’s British contact also had an interesting life during the Revolutionary war.  Sheinkin includes chapters on Andre, a likable sounding officer with too much ambition.

The story moves very quickly. It contains more about the heroics of Arnold than it does about his treachery.

The work is also thoroughly researched. Clearly Sheinkin knows his subject well. However, I think he may step a little far in assuming that he knows Arnold’s motivations. At one point he writes “but therein lies the key to understanding Arnold: he didn’t feel guilty. He was always able to convince himself that what he was doing was right. And if any feelings of remorse popped up, instead of dwelling on them he blended them with anger and spewed them outward at his enemies.”

The last 25 percent of the book contains source notes, quotation notes and an index.

After reading the book, Arnold is no longer simply a synonym for “traitor” in my mind, he is a complex human being with great strengths and, unfortunately, great weaknesses.

Other Blog Reviews:

Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac; Reading Rants!Heavy Medal; Barbara Ann Watson;

Bomb: The Race to Build –and Steal– the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

BombBomb: The Race to Build –and Steal– the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin.  Roaring Brook Press, Flash Point, 2012.  272 pages.  Publisher recommends for ages 10 and up.  ISBN: 9781596434875

Newbery Honor Book in 2012;
Seibert Medal for Best Informational Book in 2012;
National Book Award Finalist 2012.

Bomb is a fast-paced nonfiction thriller that weaves together three stories all of which have an intense sense of urgency. The first is the construction of the atomic bomb in the United States, centered primarily in Los Alamos, New Mexico.  The second is the attempt to deprive Germany of “heavy water” which they produced in a facility in Norway. Without heavy water, Germany’s atomic bomb development process would be slowed. The third is the attempt by the KGB to obtain information about the US atomic bomb so that the Soviets can build one more quickly than they would otherwise be able to.

Bomb includes many political decisions and political themes.  The decision to start a bomb program in the US was a political decision made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Three people, one British citizen and two US citizens, made a political decision to send secret documents about the bomb to the Soviets.  The decision to use the bomb against Japan was a political decision made by President Harry S. Truman.  The book also highlights the politics between the US and the Soviets in World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.

Bomb touches on the ethical/moral dilemma presented by a weapon of such destructive power.  For me this is summed up best by Oppenheimer’s musings on the Bhagavad-Gita shortly after witnessing the test of the first atomic bomb: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The people in the story are portrayed as humans, not as stick figures in a textbook.  Sheinkin uses short quotes and snippets of dialog to help achieve this effect. He also uses observations about the characters. As the sense of urgency in Los Alamos grows stronger, Sheinkin notes that Oppenheimer, thin to begin with, is losing weight continually, and smoking 4 to 6 packs of cigarettes a day.

The science involved in building the bomb has always seemed more complicated to me then I could grasp. Sheinkin is able to make the science quite understandable.

Sheinkin closes the book with “But it’s also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.”  This quote reminds me that the fear I grew up with during the Cold War didn’t end when the Cold War ended, and that no matter how fascinating Bomb is, it tells the story of the building of a weapon terrifying beyond all imagining.

Other Blog Reviews:

Children’s Book-A-Day AlmanacEducating AliceHeavy MedalSomeday My Printz Will Come; Instantly Interruptible