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Book Review: A Boy at War: A Novel of Pearl Harbor by Harry Mazer

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Adam attends high school in Honolulu. Early on a Sunday morning, he, Martin and Davi, a Japanese American, pedal along a highway to Pearl Harbor where they plan to fish. Leaving their bikes, they take their fishing poles and walk along the shore. Almost hidden by bushes, a small rowboat sits anchored.

Although the boys had come to fish, the temptation to “borrow” the rowboat for joy-rowing in deeper water near the big ships is far too strong. Within moments, the three youths are out into the harbor’s open water.

With beaming pride, Adam points out his father’s battleship, the Arizona. These huge ships have always fascinated him because of their majestic yet monstrous size. As large as the Arizona appears, still it floats gracefully and with ease as if it were simply a sleeping immovable giant. Since it is dawn, Adam knows his father is aboard that very battleship saluting with his men as they raise the American flag to prepare for the day's activities which will probably be light for a Navy Sunday.

In the distance, the mounting whine of small planes approaching grabs all three boys’ attention. For several moments, they think the aerial formation is some kind of a salute or a military exercise or clandestine war game; maybe it is some movie company shooting a new motion picture. Watching from the seats in their boat, they hear — blasts — explosions; the loud unmistakable concussive roar of bombs exploding.

In shock, they watch plane after plane drop its load of bombs on American warships sitting like lame ducks. Some of the vessels explode amidships and burst into balls of flame. Adam and his two friends witness nearby ship parts flying in all directions. Some of the wreckage lands dangerously close to them. In ghastly horror, they recognize some of the debris landing — bloody bodies and body parts of dead sailors.

While Adam stares at the Arizona, as if lifted by a mighty volcanic eruption, the entire ship explodes upward at first and then plows heavily downward into harbor waters in a hellish inferno of fire and smoke, split asunder. All too rapidly, it sends out a tsunami which tosses the boys and their boat upward out of the water and their small craft. As Adam surfaces gasping for air, he watches the conflagration all around him; he notices a pit, pit, pit of tiny pellets hitting the water and their small rowboat.

The noise comes from a Zero fighter plane firing shells directly at him and his pals. He ducks underwater. but when he surfaces, he looks toward the Arizona, the once mighty battleship is almost gone from view. It has not rolled over; it has not gone end-up. Gutted, it is rapidly sinking to Pearl Harbor’s bottom.

Can Adam save his two buddies, one of whom has “a splinter the size of a pencil sticking out of his chest?” And how must he deal with his deep feelings toward Davi, a Japanese American? Did his father survive the sinking of the Arizona? And what about his family back in the city? Did they survive?

These unanswered questions I will leave for the reader of this short, but gripping, easy-to-read book. A Boy at War by Harry Mazer is the perfect short story for high school youngsters. As a former educator, I confess it is often difficult to get some high school boys to read. This book will surely grab the aggressive interest of young males, particularly those who might be slower readers or who claim “I hate to read.”

I am guessing that the reading level of this tale is around 4.5 to 5th grade. I would recommend A Boy at War, followed by Heroes Don’t Run by the same author, to prove to adolescents that reading can be exciting, interesting, and an engrossing way to spend fun time, rather than wasting it manipulating video games. Surely, video war games might be physically active but eventually they become repetitious — even boring — until a better game comes out. But once a youth is hooked on reading for pleasure, uncountable volumes of fascinating mentally active thrillers await him in both book and e-book format.

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