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I Pledge Allegiance and Sharpshooter by Chris Lynch

This is a double review of the first two books of a planned four-book series. I had I Pledge Allegiance on TOM, aka tbr pile, since it released, then, picked up the second book, Sharpshooter, to review for InfoLinkNJ so I was motivated to move Pledge to the top of TOM since I'm a bit OCD about reading books in a series in order. 

I Pledge Allegiance.  Vietnam Series, Book #1. 192 p. Scholastic Inc. November, 2011. 9780545270298. (Purchased.)
Sharpshooter.  Vietnam Series, Book #2. 192 p. Scholastic Inc. April, 2012.  9780545270267. (Chosen to review for InfoLinkNJ)

Four friends, Morris, Ivan, Rudi and Beck, in Boston in the 1960's make a pledge not to enlist to fight in the Vietnam War, but, if one gets drafted, they all go. Book #1, I Pledge Allegiance is the set-up book told from Morris' point-of-view. He's the mastermind of the pledge. The so-called glue that keeps this disparate group of friends together. Morris feels a responsibility to watch over his three friends. He thinks he can do this by joining the Navy. At first, he's stationed on a battleship rather far from the nitty-gritty. He fools himself into thinking he can safeguard his friends. When he's reassigned to a patrol boat on the Mekong River, he comes face-to-face with the war and the real dangers his pals face, especially Rudi, whose letters are becoming increasingly disturbing. He's closest in proximity to Ivan, who doesn't answer his letters or radio transmissions. 

Sharpshooter is Ivan's story and, in many ways, his is a more compelling character. Ivan is a warrior born and bred. His father claims Native American ancestry which, doesn't quite add up to Ivan since his dad insists he descended from Apaches and their family roots are in the east. What is indisputable is the fact that his father is a decorated World War II veteran who served under Patton. The Bucyk household is governed with military precision with dad as supreme commander, and all Ivan wants to do is make his dad proud. Ivan prides himself in never backing down from a fight and fully intended on enlisting until Morris' crazy pledge. He made it but was trying to reconcile it with his father's expectation that he would enlist. Rudi's draft notice solved the dilemma. In training, Ivan distinguished himself as a marksman. In country, Ivan's goal is to become an elite sniper. Unlike many of the enlisted, Ivan is true Army. For a person who seemed rather black and white at the beginning, his evolution was quite fascinating.

The books can stand alone just fine but I'm glad that I read both and I will encourage reading both in reader's advisory. They each weigh in at 192 pages, so the short-length will be appealing to reluctant readers. The covers have gritty appeal. Excepting for the violence, both implied and graphic, they are clean so middle school librarians who worry about such things have something for those middle grade boys wanting war stories.

Ah, the "clean" war story. What is that exactly? Pass me a serving of guts with the glory please. Also, I cannot imagine a young recruit getting through boot camp, let alone facing the horrors of battle without invoking a certain name in vain or dropping an f-bomb or two. (Actually, I can't imagine spending the day with middle school students and not hearing it if one pays any attention at all to casual conversations during the day.) Lynch manages to pull it off language-wise; but I must admit, I'm not one to notice. I was halfway through the first book when I noticed the absence of raw language. This series is commendable for managing to be middle grade friendly but not sanitized to the point of meaningless prattle. Does it convey the social and political ramifications of the war globally and on the home front? No, but it's the rare middle grade reader who is sophisticated enough to want that. (Seriously, I did see one blog review criticizing the book for not delving into the politics of the war.) (I also found a review that stated it was great for middle school until the violence got graphic. Really?) What exactly do middle grade readers want in a war story? Guts as far as I can tell. Glory is probably good as well, but there has to be guts.

The next installment, Free-Fire Zone, is due out November 1, 2012. Surprisingly, it's Rudi's story. For some reason, I thought his point-of-view might be the last book.

Here's part of the publisher synopsis: 
Rudi is perhaps the most concerned about whether or not he'll be able to keep that promise (reuniting with his friends at the end of their tours). After all -- and he'd be the first to admit this -- he's not the most capable guy. He's not smart like Beck, or brave like Ivan. He lacks the strength of Morris's moral convictions.

But once Rudi is pulled kicking and screaming into the Marines, he at last finds something he's good at: following orders. Will that be enough to keep him alive? And if he does survive the war, will his best friends even recognize him on the other side?

And here's the cover:

Ah, Rudi, Rudi, my heart is already breaking for you. How much more can it break?