by Deborah Wiles

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for:  Boys and girls, aged 10 and up, for themes of nuclear annihilation, and post traumatic stress disorder.

One Word Summary: Sobering.

Until reading Countdown I never really considered the Cuban Missile Crisis or how petrifying an experience that must have been for the nation. I came of age during the first Gulf War when danger was something seen on the television in green, grainy night cam, and happening far, far away. Sad for other people, but not for me. “They can’t get us here.” That was the sentiment that kept any sense of panic at bay. But with Deborah Wiles’ terrifying and heartfelt account of those tense days in 1962, I’m now quite certain that, had I been a child during those times, as was the fate of the book’s main character Franny, I would have crumpled like a wet piece of paper. THIS is the way that history should be taught.

Franny is, well, a “square”. With her plastic headbands, clunky Buster Brown shoes, and notoriously

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whacked-out uncle, friends don’t come easily, and the ones she has are fairly toxic. But popularity is low on Franny’s lists of concerns. Her older sister Jo Ellen is acting strangely, disappearing without reason and receiving mysterious letters from someone named Ebenezer. Her father is constantly away from home, flying planes for the military. Her mother is distant. Her little brother is overly perfect, showing her up at everything. Her Uncle Otts who lives with her family is a shattered man after his time in World War I, obsessed with the threat of Communism and the notion that the spies may be among us. It’s quite a scene when he begins ripping up the front yard to build the family a bomb shelter. And, oh yeah, the Russians are amassing a nuclear arsenal on Cuba, capable of wiping out any city in North America at the push of a button. There are bomb drills at recess, and the students are forced to endure nerve-jangling informational films on what to do in the event of an attack: “Duck and cover!” Indeed.

Wiles was herself a nine year old girl during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the authority she infuses into this story springs from the pages.

In addition to the narrative, which in itself is so truthful that anyone will be able to identify with Franny’s anguish, Wiles weaves in snippets from the era: pictures of the Kennedys, Bob Dylan, Fidel Castro, real cartoon pamphlets that were handed out at schools, illustrating how to use your collar to protect your neck from nuclear fallout (really?), excerpts from the President’s televised addresses to his frightened people, school report-style biographies of the military Generals of the day, maps, birds eye photos of the missiles sitting on the beaches of Cuba. This historical data, fascinating and graphic, comes as interruptions to the plot, much as the real crisis came as an interruption, a total standstill to the lives of the people who lived it; A radio in the living room, blasting the news that annihilation could drop from the sky at any moment, blotting out dinner conversation.

A book written with the level authenticity and detail that can be found in Countdown brings so much more to the depiction of an era than a textbook could ever hope to. The eye crossingly dull facts of history are given a pulse by the characters who endured them. What would a factual account of the Bay of Pigs mean to a child? Nothing. But Franny, watching her mother cry in the kitchen; Franny gathered around the television with her family, watching a hollow-eyed Kennedy prepare the country for the worst; Franny sitting alone in her room, penning a letter to the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, explaining that she and her family are good people who just want to live; Franny just trying to deal with all the typical trappings of youth with forces she can’t control or understand laying on top of her like a brick house? The first person account is a gift to history: a teleporting widow to bygone times. If Deborah Wiles were to write a book like Countdown for every stage of history, we might actually learn something from the lessons of the past.

© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

Coming of Age