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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Amy Efaw Battle Dress. HarperCollins, 2000. [240p]
Library ed. ISBN 0-06-028411-0   $15.89
Trade ed. ISBN 0-06-027943-5   $15.95    Gr. 6-10

There is nothing new about YA protagonists marching off to war. From Gary Paulsen's Civil War Yankee (Soldier's Heart, BCCB 9/98) to Walter Dean Myers' Vietnam troopers (Fallen Angels, 4/88), soldiers have sprung fully formed from their author's imagination onto the printed page. Little attention has been paid, though, to what makes a soldier-the motivation, skills, and training that prepare a civilian to take up arms against an enemy. Efaw examines this transition in a powerful tale of a seventeen-year-old's battle with Beast, the summer of West Point training in which academy appointees are either weeded out or toughened into soldiers ready to join the August class of plebes.

Andrea "Andi" Davis has grown up in a sort of domestic war zone, but her belligerent home life hasn't prepared her for this; new cadets no sooner exit the opening convocation than the ruthless indoctrination begins: "YOU HAVE FOUR RESPONSES, AND FOUR RESPONSES ONLY: 'YES, SIR'; 'NO, SIR'; 'NO EXCUSE, SIR'; AND 'SIR, I DO NOT UNDERSTAND. . . . DO YOU PEA-BRAINED, SCUM-SUCKING, LOW-LIFE GRUB BALLS UNDERSTAND?" Disoriented and depressed at first by relentless hazing and verbal abuse from a hierarchy of squad, platoon, and company upperclass leaders, Andi suspects she is as worthless as her shrewish mother has led her to believe. Success on the track team restores some of her confidence, however, and as she steadily masters a series of complex military skills she begins to focus on the purpose behind the barked orders, mindless drills, and demand for rigorous self-control. Squad Leader Daily tersely observes, "It's about killing people." As demanding field exercises bond Andi and her squad into a cooperative unit, the cadets come to realize that it's also about completing a combat mission and surviving it, feats no soldier can accomplish alone.

Efaw (herself a West Point graduate) creates a supporting cast that could so, so easily devolve into heroic warrior wannabes, predictable academy washouts, and bullying tyrants; thankfully, each character is a distinctive amalgam of flaws, foibles, and moral grit, at once fresh and credible. Andi's roommate Gabrielle is whiny and boy-obsessed, but she displays remarkable emotional fortitude and physical stamina under pressure; new cadet Hickman indelicately (and, in the book's depiction, not unfairly) expresses doubts about the capabilities of women cadets in general but knows enough to rely on his female squad members' proven judgment and skills. Cadet Daily ("Just think of me as your Daily nightmare") is humorless and harsh, but unyielding in his determination to turn all his squad members into successes; Platoon Sergeant Black, who bellows marching cadences in "a voice that should have been captured on a CD somewhere, breaking hearts," is a master of motivation who knows just how to push his charges to their physical limits.

Vividly realized though the cadets may be, it is Beast itself that emerges as Andi's true costar and nemesis-the White Whale she will, if not vanquish, at least subdue. Cadet Daily growls, "I'm going to spend the next six weeks tearing you down, inch by painful inch, until you don't even remember you were anybody. Then you'll spend the next four years building yourselves up to becoming someone again. But not the person you were." Many teen readers currently basking in an educational milieu that promotes self esteem and looking forward to collegiate freedom on the horizon will marvel here at peers who freely submit to dehumanization, rigid discipline, and suffocating supervision in service of their country. Andi's capably depicted transformation from an insecure adolescent into a knowledgeable and fit soldier, unhesitatingly obedient to the code of military conduct, may prove more disturbing to some readers than the edgiest sex, rebellion, and family dysfunction offerings of YA literature.

--Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Big Picture Image
May's Bulletin cover illustration by Laurence Tamaccio
from Battle Dress,
Copyright 2000. Used by permission of HarperCollins Children's Books

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This page was last updated on May 1, 2000.