Thursday, September 13, 2012
Book Review: Jump into the Sky, by Shelley Pearsall (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
In her new historical novel Jump into the Sky, award-winning historical fiction author Shelley Pearsall explores a little known footnote in World War II history--the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the first black paratrooper unit in the U.S. Army.
The story of the 555th unfolds through the eyes of thirteen-year old Levi, who's been living with his aunt in Chicago while his father serves in a secret Army mission. It's May, 1945, and the war is drawing to close. Levi's aunt decides to send him off by train to stay with his father at his dad's last known address, an army post in North Carolina. Not only does his father not know he's coming, Levi arrives in the Jim Crow South without a clue as to the behavior expected of a "colored boy" and almost gets himself killed for trying to buy a Coke at the wrong store. And to make things more difficult, his father's unit has been sent all the way to Oregon. Will Levi have to go back to his aunt, who doesn't want him any more, or will he be able to find his father in Oregon? And will his father survive the dangerous mission assigned to the 555?
This novel is a powerful story of racism and courage in the not-too-distant days of the Jim Crow South and a segregated American military. Although the main characters of Levi and his father are fictitious, the novel is carefully researched and many of the incidents described really happened, including the scene at the country store with the Coca Cola. Moreover, the novel is peppered with colorful real soldiers from the 555th, including "Tiger Ted" Lowry, who once fought Joe Louis in an exhibition match. An author's note describes how she first learned of this battalion, which was part of a secret operation to protect the U.S. from Japanese balloon bombs. This balloon bombing strategy of the Japanese is certainly a "truth is stranger than fiction" story. Pearsall was fortunate to interview a veteran of the unit, Walter Morris. Further details on the 555th can be found at the unit's website, triplenickle.com.
I would highly recommend this book to middle schoolers looking for a good adventure story that brings a little known part of World War II history to life.