Rich Wallace caught me by surprise. War and Watermelon is different. I have only known Wallace’s work in angsty, young adult novels with older protagonists. However, this time, he’s writing for a different audience and his story is much richer and crisper. Writing from the perspective of thoughtful, unsure, 12-year-old, soon-to-be-seventh-grader Brody Winslow, Wallace takes on a Gary Schmidt-like narrative quality that I thoroughly enjoyed. Brody is a pre-teen everyone can relate to. He wants to date a cute girl, he loves the Mets, even though they stink, he’s unsettled by the prospect of junior high school, and he worries about his brother, Ryan, who recently graduated from high school and has no college plans. Brody and his family are worried Ryan will wind up in Vietnam. And, like many middle school students, the words he wishes he had the courage to move from his thoughts to words always seem to get lost in translation or die on the tip of his tongue.
1969 was a unique year, and Wallace shares many of its historically-significant events with readers. He takes them to Woodstock, he works in Neil Armstrong’s lunar landing, he forces them to suffer through and then celebrate the Miracle Mets incredible turnaround, and he gives them a dose of Vietnam politics. He also provides us with the AM radio soundtrack of 1969, including the Archies and Sly and the Family Stone. Even though 1969 is the backdrop, it doesn’t overwhelm the story. Front and center is Brody’s worry about Ryan going off to Vietnam, his father’s health, seventh grade, football and the Mets.
Historical fiction fans will enjoy this story, as will anyone who craves a truly well-written, compelling novel. I look forward to more of Rich Wallace’s offerings in the genre.