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.

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The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi

The Nazi HuntersThe Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb. Arthur A. Levine Books (an Imprint of Scholastic Inc.), 2013. 256 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 12 and older. ISBN: 9780545430999.

This review is based on an Advance Readers Copy I won in a contest.

In 1960, after Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi in charge of moving Jews into concentration camps, had been accurately identified in Argentina, the head of the Israeli Mossad, it’s secret intelligence organization, said to the team he had assembled to capture and transport Eichmann to Israel to stand trial:

“’I want to begin by speaking to you from my heart… This is a national mission of the first degree. It is not an ordinary capture operation but the capture of a hideous Nazi criminal, the most horrible enemy of the Jewish people. We are not performing this operation as adventurers but as representatives of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Our objective is to bring Eichmann back safely, fully in good health, so he can be put to trial.

There might well be difficult repercussions. We know this. We have not only the right but the moral duty to bring this man to trial. You must remember this throughout the weeks ahead. You are Guardian Angels of justice, the emissaries of the Jewish people.’” (p. 90).

David Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister of Israel, sanctioned the Eichmann operation. He wanted a trial of Eichmann to remind a new generation of the Holocaust and to ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten.

This book is an exciting, fast-paced narrative of the identification of Eichmann and then of the operation the Mossad chief  described in the quote above. Three separate phases of the operation were meticulously planned and carried out: Eichmann’s capture, his stay at a safe house until he could be safely removed from Argentina, and then his removal from Argentina and transfer to Israel.

The first 20 pages of the book describe what Eichmann did before and during World War II. These 20 pages are chilling and may be difficult reading for middle graders.

Those who stayed with Eichmann at the safe house had a very difficult time emotionally. Some of them lost family members during the Holocaust. All of them felt a sick evil coming from Eichmann. The El Al crew who manned the flight from Argentina to Israel with Eichmann aboard felt the same sick evil.

As an adult, I have questions this book doesn’t address. I’d like to know more about Eichmann’s trial. I’d like to know if there were repercussions from other countries when Israelis went into Argentina and removed Eichmann. But these are adult questions. I suspect kids will be fascinated by the book as it is. And just as Ben-Gurion wanted a new generation to learn about and remember the Holocaust, so it is important now that a new generation learn about the Holocaust.

For adults like me who would like to know more about Eichmann’s trial, there is a very highly rated book by Hannah Arendt called “Eichmann in Jerusalem.”

 

Blog Reviews:

The Book Smugglers
Bookends: A Booklist Blog
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For Those About to Mock
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Climbing the Stairs

CLIMBINGtheSTAIRS_FINAL.inddClimbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman. SPEAK (an imprint of the Penguin Group), 2010. Originally published by Putnam, 2008. 272 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 12 and older. ISBN: 9780142414903.

Vidya is a 15-year-old living with her parents, her older brother and her dog in Bombay (now called Mumbai) in 1941. They are part of the Brahman caste, the highest caste in India. However, Vidya’s mother and father don’t believe in the caste system: “According to appa, caste was a social evil, not a Hindu belief.” Vidya’s father, a physician, spends part of his time caring for those who have been injured in the nonviolent protests against the British colonization of India. The family is aligned with Gandhi as he tries, through nonviolent means, to bring about Indian independence from the British. A terrible tragedy occurs and Vidya’s family is forced to go and live with her father’s extended family. The family is a traditional Brahman family. The men and women live separately, only seeing each other when the women serve the men meals. Vidya has no intention of marrying before she’s ready. She longs for a college education. But in her grandfather’s household, it’s much more important for a woman to marry than to become educated. Vidya becomes afraid that she will be subjected to an arranged marriage long before she’s ready. Her feelings about nonviolence and the British are put to the test when her brother, very worried about the possibility of Japanese incursions into India, signs up to join the British Army.

I found the contrast between the political and social beliefs of Vidya’s nuclear family and the beliefs of those in her grandfather’s house fascinating. This book is an excellent way to learn about Indian society in the 1940s. It’s also Vidya’s story, the story of a young girl who intends to be her own master. She finds a way to live her own life, even if only for a few hours every day, by climbing the stairs to her grandfather’s library.

The book is rich with Hindu festivals and rituals. Vidya’s father felt differently about Hinduism than those in her grandfather’s house. But the festivals are celebrated at both houses and Vidya loves them.

I am fascinated by Indian politics, history and culture. I am so pleased to find such a good young adult book set in India.

Blog Reviews:

Bookshelves of Doom
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Mitali’s Fire Escape

Barbed Wire Baseball

Barbed Wire BaseballBarbed Wire Baseball. Written by Marissa Moss. Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu. Abrams Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Abrams), 2013. 48 pages. Recommended for ages 6-10. ISBN: 9781419705212.

At eight years old, Zeni saw his first baseball game. From then on, all he wanted to do was play baseball.  He built a successful career for himself playing and coaching baseball in two Japanese leagues in Fresno, California. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the Second World War, all people of Japanese descent on the west coast, whether or not they were citizens of the United States, were sent to internment camps. Zeni, his wife and two teenage sons were sent to a camp at Gila River, Arizona. Barbed wire prevented those interned at the camp from leaving. They lived in barracks that were essentially rows and rows of cots. Zeni felt himself shrinking and realized that if he were ever to feel at home in the camp he had to play baseball. That’s exactly what he did; he built a baseball field and played baseball.

The book focuses on Zeni’s drive to play baseball. This makes the book a good way to introduce kids to the Japanese internment camps in the second world war. The book shows how spirit crushing the camps were for Japanese-Americans. And in one paragraph it indicates that the Japanese-Americans were sent to the camps because they might be spies; the government didn’t produce evidence that they were spies nor did they put any Japanese-Americans on trial before sending them to the internment camps. Yet, because the book doesn’t focus primarily on the camps, it’s possible for kids to take in the information without being hit over the head with the unfairness of the camps. It’s also possible to use the book as a way to open a discussion about whether or not United States should have treated its own citizens of Japanese descent in such a way.

The illustrations do a beautiful job of adding detail to the story. At the back of the book there is a one page biography of Kenichi Zenimura, the real life Zeni. There’s also an author’s note and artists note and a helpful bibliography as well as an index.

This is a great book both for kids interested in baseball and for kids interested in the Japanese American experience during World War II.

Blog Reviews:

Cattail Chronicles
The Children’s War
Kid Lit Frenzy

Professional Reviews:

Kirkus
Publisher’s Weekly

 

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.

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