This book has many lovable qualities, not least of which is its originality; you don't see many stories about half-American, half-Vietnamese who were airlifted out of Vietnam following the war and went on to lead new lives in America.
Characterization here is beautifully executed, from the Vietnamese-hating boy who lost his older brother in the war, to the tough-but-wise baseball coach, to the scarred veteran. The main character is realistically developed: a child with a child's perspective on a frightening war, life in its aftermath, and a heavy case of survivor's guilt. To me, the most heart-wrenching time in the novel was when the hero misinterpreted an overheard conversation between his adoptive parents to mean that they were going to send him away. Children so often hear more than adults realize, and a serious, secretive conversation can be easily misconstrued as negative.
Despite the large role baseball plays, the emotional, character-driven plot will warm even a sports atheist's heart.
The novel is told in verse. I am a believer in the verse novel but not for every story, and I think this one could have been as effectively told in prose. The "bombs dropping like dead crows" would have been as effective in prose and I think the story could have been more fully explored outside the contraints of poetry, especially since the poetry here is constrained to a child's reading level. I can see this book serving as a non-threatening introduction to modern poetry for kids and teens, though, and occasionally the medium is very effective. For instance, when Matt's class has to write about what freedom means to them, Matt ruminates on a time when he pushed his little American brother on the swings and the red shoes his brother wore, and the imagery is extremely powerful. He writes "Freedom is the color of red shoes," but his teacher, without asking for explanation, tells him the sentence doesn't make any sense. The innocence and sweetness of his relationship with his little brother, the racism and stodginess of the 70s era teacher, and the child's inability to concisely explain the connections he draws in life are all powerfully encapsulated though never stated in just a few short lines. At moments like that, the book truly shines. At other times, I longed for this novel to have more flesh on its bones.
Recommend to: Age 12+, sports fans, poetry fans, horizons that need broadening
Don't recommend to: President Johnson