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How I Found the Strong Mass Market Paperback – April 11, 2006
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"Shank's narration is crafted with such delicacy and precision..."
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In 1861 Frank "Shanks" Russell wishes he was old enough to fight for the South alongside his pa and big brother. But Frank is too young, skinny, and weak, and is left behind with his mother and grandparents. Life in Mississippi was simple before the war between North and South. Now Frank's boyhood is gone forever, along with his dreams of heroic battles. The shortages and horrors of war reach his home as he scrounges for food and water, and sees both Confederate and enemy soldiers at their worst. As time goes by and Frank's friendship with Buck, the family slave, grows, he questions more and more who is the enemy and why the terrible war is being fought.
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"Two soldiers tell Buck and me to step aside while they haul a man up front and lay him across a table that was meant to be a teacher's desk. A doctor with a bloody butcher's apron looks at the man's arm, which is split open down the side, and the blood drains into the pool under the table. Just behind the table is a pile of arms and legs, legs that still have on socks and shoes like they are fixing to walk on out of there by themselves. The doctor picks up a saw."
A reader might quickly note that things are different these days. That is true. War still results in missing eyes, missing legs, missing hands, and missing arms, but the wounded and dying are treated with much better drugs and much cleaner bandages in much better facilities. (And if they live, Halliburton will provide them a meal for which they charge US taxpayers an arm and a leg.)
"We hear shouting and carrying on and we go have ourselves a look-see.
"Sheriff Matkin is locking leg irons around the ankles of one of our own men.
" 'Deserter.' Irene spits the word out. 'See him, the one with the red hair?'
"I nod. The sheriff is attaching what looks to be a fifty-pound ball to his chain.
" 'He was fighting a battle at Wilson's Creek, in Missouri, standing right beside his best buddy, when a cannonball came and tore off his buddy's head. But I 'spec he's seen worse. This is the third time they caught him for deserting.' "
HOW I FOUND THE STRONG provides readers a graphic accounting of what it was like for the average young white Southern male to be given the chance to bleed, starve, and die in The War Between the States in the desperate hope that wealthy Southern slaveholders would be permitted to maintain their precious property right to own black people and hide their behavior behind the facade of State's Rights.
And, in the manner that the nightly newscasts from Vietnam constituted part of my adolescent education and caused me to stand up and question the wisdom of our leaders' utilization of combat to "bring democracy" to Southeast Asia, HOW I FOUND THE STRONG's indelible images will certainly lead readers to similarly contemplate the barbaric ways in which we "solved" past disagreements, and the fashion in which we continue to solve our problems in the twenty-first century.
"In June we run out of salt, and we can't afford to buy any more corn. Brother Davenport comes by so that we may 'dedicate' our mule Ben to the army services. Now the only farm teams we have are ourselves."
HOW I FOUND THE STRONG is the story of Frank "Shanks" Russell, who is the baby of the Russell family. Living on a farm in Mississippi, his family owns one slave, Buck, who has always been Shanks' playmate and protector. While he is too young to go to war, the war comes to Shanks as the last bits of their valuables and provisions are grabbed up by soldiers on both sides, as he and Buck lend their assistance to the nearby medical efforts, and when some good ol' boys come to take their frustration out on Buck. Through the story Frank comes to understand the reality of slavery and the heavy cost of war.
Inspired by family stories about her Southern forebears, and a "rough manuscript" dictated by her ancestor, the real Frank Russell, Margaret McMullan has created an excellent new piece of YA Civil War literature.
Beginning at the start of the Civil War, we meet young Frank "Shanks" Russell as he wistfully watches his elder brother and father march off to fight for the Union. Left at home with his mother, his grandparents, and Buck, the slave not much older than he is, Shanks longs for his neighbor Irene as he begins to watch his world disintegrate into hunger and blood. First he loses his grandparents and then he has to struggle to help his pregnant mother; all of the things Shanks suffers through start to make him question whether or not slavery is worth everything it is costing him and the U.S. It is to Buck that he turns, and it is Buck who helps Shanks learn to stand up for what is right.
Powerful, yes, but also revealing; as Shanks grows up, he must come to terms with the idea that the world as he's known it is not what he'd hoped but he's got to find out what means the most to him. Excellently written and illuminating, this is one I can recommend without reservation.
I really like this book. Its realistic story would lend itself well to a Social Studies Theme focused on the Civil War. I think this story is best for grades 4-6 and offers an opportunity for children to relate to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a young boy similar in age as he lives during the Civil War. (However, it's a good read for young adults and adults, as well. I (an adult) appreciate the insights about our American past gained from reading this story.)