Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Review of Shooting the Moon by Frances O'Roark Dowell

Jamie’s father is the Colonel, and her world is the Army. Growing up, she plays war games with her older brother and wishes she could be a soldier. When her brother, T.J., decides to go fight in Vietnam, she is thrilled—he will be a hero! Jamie is utterly baffled when her father tries to discourage T.J. from enlisting. After all, this is the man who wears his fatigues and combat boots to play football in the yard with his daughter:

“Pathfinders,” he’d yell, zigzagging across the yard toward the imaginary end zone.

“Combat ready, sir!” I’d yell back, completing the old 8th Infantry Division call-and-response we’d learned as kids, which was part of our life, just like answering the phone “Colonel Dexter’s quarters” or making sure we had our military IDs with us whenever we went to the PX or the commissary so we could prove who we were, proud citizens of the United States Army. Hooah, as we liked to say. Hooah, yes sir.

Pretty soon T.J. is writing letters home from Vietnam, but with each letter, he encloses a canister of film for Jamie, instructing her to develop the film herself. Jamie has already been hanging around the army base’s rec center, where she has a summer job sweeping up and spends most of her time playing diabolical games of gin rummy with Private Hollister. Another soldier, Sergeant Bird, agrees to teach Jamie how to develop T.J.’s film.

So begins a book where an older brother’s wordless messages to his sister are more powerful than anything he might have written. Jamie shares the photos with some of the soldiers at the rec center and with a handicapped friend, Cindy, who likes to keep T.J.’s shots of the moon. She also shows them to her parents. Then, as T.J.’s photo subjects change, Jamie finds herself holding back certain photos, not showing them to her parents at all.

Shooting the Moon’s message may seem heavy handed if you haven’t actually read the book, but the story telling is stronger than that. Jamie doesn’t change her mind in a direct way so much as she blossoms out of innocence into ambiguity about the meaning of war, of heroes, and of fathers. Her friend Cindy is an intriguing character, a purified, magnified version of Jamie’s naivete but also occasionally the voice of the "wise fool."

As the book draws to a close, Jamie makes a choice that casts light on her evolution. Of course, the author’s spotlight would have to be the moon. The moon has been a symbol in a lot of literature over the years, so it’s really kind of stunning that Frances O’Roark Dowell manages to give it a new and subtle significance in this book. Shooting the Moon won a Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Award for 2008, and I can see why. Whether you’re anti-war, pro-war, or nothing of the kind, I suggest you take the time to see the world through Jamie’s eyes, and through T.J.’s camera lens.


caribookscoops said...

This sounds very intriguing. I like the concept of her brother sending pictures to explain his experience.

bestbookihavenotread said...

I just found your blog and love your title and tagline. I thought Shooting the Moon was fabulous! Looking forward to future reviews.