Mare's War, by Tanita Davis

It rained again this morning, so no weeding. The children and house guests slept late, and the house was tidy. So I got a lovely two hours in which to read a book I've been saving for just such a window of opportunity--Mare's War, by Tanita Davis (2009, Alfred A. Knopf, 343pp). And the two hours flew by in happy, deeply satisfied reading...

Mare's War tells of two journeys. In a car speeding (or not, depending on the driver) across America to a mysterious reunion are two teenage girls (who had their own, more teenagerishly appropriate plans for the summer) and their grandmother, Marey Lee (known as Mare), who planned the trip. On the way, their grandmother tells them the story of her own great journey, seventy or so years before, when she escaped from her home in Bay Slough, Alabama and went to war.

The two sister, Octavia and Talitha, squabble, fret, drag their feet, and send occasional postcards of complaint to friends and family (shown in the book, in a nicely light touch), but as the miles pass, and their grandmother's story unfolds, the tone of the postcard messages changes. Their grandmother's life as Marey Lee, an African American teenager in the Women's Army Corps has them fascinated. The friendships she made, the prejudice she encountered, and the historical pageant of which she was a part are spellbinding stuff. This is an eye-openingly powerful narrative that educates without being didactic, filling a blank space in the history of World War II without ever loosing sight of Marey Lee, the girl.

It was a story that sure kept me enthralled (although I'm glad I didn't have to drive 2,340 miles from California to Alabama in summer with my sisters and grandmother to hear it).

Davis manages to make her teenagers in the present interesting people in their own right, and not just vessels created to receive Mare's story, but their sibling relationship and 21st century teenage angsts pall in comparison to what their grandmother went through (to give them credit, they realize this). In essence, Mare's War is first rate historical fiction, set in a modern narrative that, I think, makes it much more accessible and appealing to teenagers than Marey Lee's story, served straight up, might have been.

So today I moved my Madeline L'Engle books down to the playroom, and shelved Mare's War in the section I think of as "British Girls Books," even though they aren't by any means all British. They are, though, all books that put girls front and central--books about girls doing things, and communities of girls, and career stories. And that, in my mind, is where Mare's War belongs. I'll be recommending this book at a yahoo group I belong to (Girls Own), that focuses on British girls' boarding school books--the relationships between young women, their education, the career choices they made, and the windows they often offer on life as a girl many years ago are all here in Marey Lee's story.

I'm also more than happy to recommend this to fans of World War II historical fiction--it's a great addition to that genre. And while I'm at it, it's a great road trip story too!

Anyway. I hope Mare's War will be happy shelved next to Hester Burton's books (more great historical fiction), and one shelf up from Helen Doyle Boylston...who is best known for intrepid nurse Sue Barton, but who also wrote a rather interesting memoir of her World War I experiences--Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse.

Other reviews of Mare's War can be found at Reading in Color, Reading Rants, The HappyNappyBookseller, Jen Robinson's Book Page, and Colleen Mondor.

Disclosure: Tanita Davis is a blog friend of mine, and I was lucky enough to win a copy of the book from one of her giveaways. So, although I was very glad to write what I think is a glowing review (at least, it's meant to be) of her book, I just want to make it clear that I would have written this even if I had never met her (in an online sense).


  1. Ooh, I didn't know you were part of a book recommendation group! I have a serious weakness for "school stories;" and all of those great British boarding school books.

    Thanks for understanding why I included Tali/Tavi's story -- I think sometimes historical fiction is harder to swallow for some, and a modern "hook" is needed to ground readers in the here-and-now. And really, Octavia getting over herself and finding courage was fun to write.

  2. Goodness, Tanita, I didn't know you liked boarding school stories! Do come join us on Girls Own!

    I liked Octavia, btw. I find it easy to imagine her having a book of her own, about something that happened when she was ten or so...with Mare as a sort of force of nature who never becomes comprehensible.

  3. I completely agree about the modern bits making the whole book more accessible to kids. Great review, Charlotte!

  4. Ooh, I'm looking forward to reading this! Sounds great :-)

  5. Thanks Jen!

    And I'd bet you dollars to doughnuts you'd like it lots, Laini!


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