In my experience as a children's librarian, when a kid comes up to me looking for information about the navy (and trust me, it happens) I usually end up throwing them headlong into the appropriate section of non-fiction books with the hope that follow-up questions will not be forthcoming. Needless to say, I don't know much about the navy. Fortunately, I've just read a navy-rific book that I may definitely recommend to little navy lovers everywhere (and, interestingly enough, navy haters too). "Left For Dead", has everything a good non-fiction story should. Action, adventure, shark infested waters, and a young optimistic hero who wins in the end. Though certain elements of this book rankled me at the most inappropriate of times, I have enough sense to see that in spite of its flaws, "Left For Dead", is an excellent encapsulation of how sometimes one boy can change history itself.
If you're like the hero of this story, eleven-year-old Hunter Scott, then you probably learned about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis as he did through the movie "Jaws". Remember that scene where Robert Shaw's talking with Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider about how he once served on that ship? Remember how he describes the sharks eating the men after their ship sank and that it took some five days to be rescued? Well after seeing that scene Hunter knew he'd found the perfect history fair project. Trouble was, the history books seemed to have obscured knowledge of the Indianapolis and its unlucky crew. So Hunter set about contacting the survivors and talking to them. As he did, one thing became incredibly clear to him. Many of the survivors were convinced that their captain, one Mr. Charles Butler McVay III, was wrongfully court-martialed for the sinking of the ship. Suddenly Hunter's involved in a quest that will take him to the halls of Washington, the sets of television shows, and into the public eye in general. He becomes the Indianpolis crews' last hope to restore dignity to the man they all respected. The only question is, can one kid really take on the Navy and make them apologize?
Author Pete Nelson is at his best when he's recounting the days of the Indianapolis and the events that led to its sinking. These passages are gripping and tight with tension. He opens with a man's experiences as he escapes the sinking vessel and has to contend with oil-filled seas, a fellow sailor who cannot swim, and most horrific of all, sharks. Then he flashes forward to Hunter interviewing the former crewmembers. Then it's back to the past, with insights into many different survivors' personal stories. Nelson looses some of this wonderful writing excitement when he tells Hunter's contemporary quest, but the book's still interesting. Hopefully the teens reading it won't mind long court sequences and Senatorial rigamarole. Nelson also has an odd tendancy to dissolve into funny descriptive sentences. For example, note the sentence, "...injustice is like the shadow cast by wrong - shine enough light on a shadow and it goes away". Or, more bizarrely, his comparison of moving a bill through Congress to Myst or Dungeons and Dragons. And the author is a fan of getting a little too wrapped up in the story he's trying to tell. Personally (and this is probably just my problem, so don't assume you'll object to this) I found the politics in this book grating. Yes, I'm happy that Senator Joe Scarborough moved Hunter's history project to his Pensacola office (thereby lending it much needed publicity). But I feel a deep moral repugnance towards Joe Scarborough so mentions of him, Newt Gingrich, and other politicians, with whom I have what can only be politely described as an abhorrence, hurt to read. Fortunately, Nelson doesn't linger on them (though the fact that Hunter describes himself in the book's preface as the president of his school's Young Republicans club gave me pause right from the get-go).
Still, Nelson has his fair share of wherewithal and canniness. He gives equal honor and appreciation to the tale told by Mochitsura Hashimoto (the man who sank the Indianapolis in the first place) as he does the Indianapolis's crew. And to me, his respect of Hashimoto is the ultimate display of the absurdity of war. Here we have good men that, in the course of WWII, killed one another. Nelson's strength lies in his equal respect of both sides during the conflict and his acknowledgement that both the Japanese and the American committed atrocities. Finally, the book simultaneously supports the Navy and condemns it for its intractability years after it made a mistake of count-martialing McVay. It's a delicate juggling act that Nelson passes off without too many lost balls.
Most non-fiction retellings of tragic or inspiring events try to simply display the facts of a matter without too much meddling. If you decide to read "Left For Dead", (85% is thrilling reading too), be prepared for a lot of Christian references and a distinct mindset of its own. Also be prepared for a truly heartwarming story about a boy and the men he set out to fight for. The book's a little didactic a little too often, but it tells a tale that desperately needed to be heard. With ample pictures, a wonderful bibliography, an index, and more facts than you can swing a hammer at, this book is factual and written well. You may not agree with everything it says, but you'll have a hard time not respecting its story and the heroes in it.