Earl “Earwig” Gunderman is finding his place in life. It’s 1940 in rural Wisconsin and Earwig is 16. He’s a bit slow and has problems learning things. They pretty much threw him out of school when he couldn’t pass the 3rd grade after trying a couple of times. Still, he helps out at his family’s grocery store with his mom stocking shelves and cleaning up. He can’t make change so he tries not to work behind the counter too often. His older brother, Jimmy, works with their dad at his garage. Things are going along fairly well in Earwig’s life; he has a good friend, Eddie, to play with, his brother lets him tag along with his buddies, and his parents are letting him grow up at his own pace.
Things change though in 1940 and not for the better. Jimmy and one of his buddies sign up for the National Guard. They were drunk. Earwig’s mom thinks their dad should do something but he won’t. After all, it’s only for about a year. That year is extended much longer after Japan bombs Pearl Harbor in Dec. Jimmy and his fellow guardsmen are sent to the Philippines. When the US troops surrender, Jimmy is declared missing. Back home, rationing goes into affect and all the local factories are making things for the war effort. Earwig’s dad goes to a neighboring town to be a foreman at one of the factories leaving Earwig and his mother at home.
Eventually the war ends and Jimmie and most of his buddies return home. They are not the same young men that left. It’s not easy adjusting back to small town life. And it’s not easy forgetting where they’d been.
This book is timeless. Even though it is based in the 1940s, this could be any small town and any war. Many of the issues that are raised are still issues that are dealt with today. Mother’s don’t like to see their children go into harms way. It’s scary when the military is contacting you when your child is at war. Girls do cheat on their boyfriends who are gone for long times. And you don’t return from a war the same as you left. These things are as true today as they were then.
The small town life was described perfectly. There was the busybody who wasn’t gossiping but was letting you know her opinion on everyone’s actions. Of course, when she let you know something about your family it was in your best interest. The town whore had a heart of gold. Domestic violence was evident but you didn’t get into other people’s business. Everyone knew everyone else and everyone’s business!
The characters were excellent. Earwig was lovable. He had difficulties learning things yet he had a way of looking at the heart of a problem. He was loyal and a good friend. He took things to heart. The other characters were just as well developed. You felt bad for the town whore when she fell in love with a visiting man who was in town for a few weeks converting a factory for war use only to find out that he was married with three children. When Earwig told a victim of domestic abuse that she might be better off if her husband didn’t come back from the war, her reaction of remembering the good was extremely accurate of most victims. All of the characters were depicted so that if you are from a small rural town, you can easily recognize them in your own town.
I would recommend that this book be readily available in our high schools. The lessons that can be learned from this book are varied and there are plenty of points that can be discussed. One of the most obvious is tolerance of those that are different. Earwig would be what we consider to be mentally challenged, yet he is able to hold a job, be a good friend and grow into a worthwhile individual. I think the best thing about this book is while it does give fantastic insight into many issues and problems; it is never peachy or boring. The story flows. It never drags or slows so you’re bored.
There is only one downside to this book. It is not a big issue but there are many curse words in it. These words are not just there for no reason but they are used to enhance the characters and are realistic to how teens and young adults talked then and now.
The love of family. The heartbreak of war. The triumph of coming home.
1940. Rural Wisconsin. Sixteen-year-old Earl “Earwig” Gunderman is not like other boys his age. Fiercely protected by his older brother, Earwig sees his town and the world around him through the prism of his own unique understanding. He sees his mother’s sadness and his father’s growing solitude. He sees his brother, Jimmy, falling in love with the most beautiful girl in town. And while Earwig is unable to make change for customers at his family’s store, he is singularly well suited to understand what other people in his town cannot: that life as they know it is about to change; the coming war will touch them all.
For Jimmy will enlist in the military. And Earwig will watch his parents’ marriage buckle under the strain of a family secret. And when Jimmy returns–a fractured shadow of his former self–it is Earwig’s turn to care for him. His struggles to right the wrongs visited upon his revered older brother by war, women, and life are at once heartwarming and riotously funny. Their family and town irrevocably altered, Earwig and Jimmy fight to find their own places in a world changed forever.