'December Stillness' speaks to the young about war

Books for children

September 12, 1990|By Molly Dunham | Molly Dunham,Evening Sun Staff

THE SETTING is a high school in Howard County, where Mr. Hardy's ninth-grade English class splits into factions during a discussion of poems about war.

Kelly reads a haunting verse by Siegfried Sassoon, who survived World War I. "How does any soldier forget killing people or seeing his friends die all around him?" she says.

"Old men forget what war is like," says her friend Keith. "So they make up lies about honor and glory and trick young men into fighting. And the young men die, not the old men."

Brett, who always wears a camouflage shirt and trousers, reddens with anger. "We could've made Vietnam into a parking lot if it hadn't been for bleeding hearts like you," he says to Keith. "I don't think we should read poems by a bunch of cowards. I'm ready to defend my country. I'll die if I have to."

The scene is from "December Stillness," a novel by Mary Downing Hahn published in 1988 (Clarion, $13.95). This month, Brett's words come echoing back with each evening newscast as American soldiers wait in the Saudi Arabian desert -- young men waiting for the old men to tell them it's time to fight.

"I've never tried to write a book to make a moral point," said Hahn, who lives in Columbia. "Except 'December Stillness.' I definitely wanted to show the terribleness of war and its legacy and how it affects everyone in society, whether they're fighting in the war or not.

"I go to schools a lot as a visiting author, and I'll be interested this fall to see what the kids' reaction is to 'December Stillness' in relation to what's happening in the Persian Gulf."

The narrator of "December Stillness" is Kelly, 14, an only child of a fairly typical upper middle-class family in Adelphia, Md. The planned community sandwiched between Baltimore and Washington is easily recognized as Columbia, from the silly street names to the Hecht's department store at the mall.

Kelly is a bright, idealistic kid who feels at odds with everyone. Her best friend, Julie, is focusing all of her energy on clothes and boys -- especially Keith, Kelly's old buddy. At home, Kelly's father is a successful corporate lawyer who is disappointed in her grade average and her rebellious nature.

Rarely inspired by school projects, Kelly finds a purpose when she decides to do a social studies paper on the homeless. She wants to reach out to Mr. Weems, a bag man who spends his days at the public library, staring at the photos in books about the Vietnam war.

But he rejects her offers of help. She keeps pressing, certain that he can seek counseling that might ease his nightmares of war.

At the same time, Kelly discovers that her father, also a Vietnam vet, did not escape the war unscathed. The scars he has tried to hide for so long are revealed.

Kelly's well-meaning attempts to help Mr. Weems fail, and in the end, she and her father share a tangled mess of pain and guilt. The father-daughter relationship rings true -- full of misunderstandings and unspoken grievances -- and the ending is satisfying, not sappy.

Hahn, whose two daughters are now in their 20s, works as a library associate at the Prince George's County Public Library branch in Laurel. She based Mr. Weems on a homeless man who used to spend his days at the branch.

Even though she has published 10 novels since 1979, with an 11th, "The Spanish Kidnapping Disaster," due out next spring, Hahn hasn't quit her day job. All of her books -- usually listed for kids ranging in age from 8 to 14 -- have met with critical acclaim. They include "Daphne's Book," which is also set in Adelphia, "Wait Till Helen Comes -- A Ghost Story," and "The Dead Man in Indian Creek," which came out early this year. All are published by Clarion.

Hahn, 52, laughed when asked about the money to be made writing children's novels.

"I'm sure Ann Martin has made a fortune with 'The Babysitting Club' series, but I couldn't stand writing that stuff," Hahn said.

Hahn's decision to write for an audience that includes mostly middle school kids wasn't premeditated. "It just kind of happened that way," she said. "For some reason my memories of those years are very vivid . . . It's a real scary and uncertain age, and by the end of my books I like to think that my characters are figuring some things out."

One critic called "December Stillness" didactic, a label Hahn tries to avoid.

"I definitely wanted to make a point about how terrible war is," she said. "I've gotten a lot of letters, and kids really seem to like the book." A conference of teen-agers with the Enoch Pratt Free Library's young adult advisory board selected it as one of their Youth-to-Youth books for 1989.

"That really made me happy," Hahn said. "If the book was didactic, kids wouldn't like it."

* NEXT WEEK: A roundup of some new books for younger kids.

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