I picked up Countdown by Deborah Wiles more for its unique format, which uses photographs, pamphlets, quotes, song lyrics, and other memorabilia of the 60s between chapters to place the reader within the time and to broaden the scope of the book’s plot by showing what is happening outside of the protagonist’s personal story, than for its synopsis. Definitely it’s outside of the genre that I prefer, being a realistic, wartime novel. The story follows protagonist Franny Chapman, a young girl living in Camp Springs, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C., in 1962, during the Cold War, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Franny’s father works on the air force base in Camp Springs. Her grandfather is also a war veteran who lives with the family and suffers from PTSD. Franny lives in fear: fear of death, fear of humiliation, fear of social isolation. As much as Wiles shows us the 1960s, she also shows us the typical childhood of a child in the 1960s, of any child of any time, dealing with the frustrations of school, the drama of trying to belong in a peer group, childhood crushes, secrets kept from parents, family drama, etc.
I appreciate Wiles’ rather accurate representation of childhood. Wiles admits in an author’s note at the novel’s end that she drew greatly from her own childhood recollections, and Countdown does read almost like creative nonfiction, again to her credit. I appreciate that this is a wartime novel that I didn’t loathe (usually I do), but then again, this is not a typical wartime novel that focuses on soldiers, but it focuses instead on the civilians, whose way of life I am more comfortable sharing.
Wiles touched on many of the aspects of American life and controversy in the 1960s (or as far as my scant knowledge is aware): PTSD, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the growing awareness of racial inequality…. Franny, being young and mainly unaware of the intricacies of these situations, was not a narrator to give me any great insight into these events; rather Franny’s perspective offered the raw, emotional fear that these events inspired in the average citizen.
And there’s “fear” again. I guess if I had to, I would say that that was the overarching impression that this book gave me of the 60s: fear paired with a desire for 50s normality (white picket fence, manicured lawn, and 2.5 kids, et al.). Whether this was the overarching feeling of the 60s or if it was merely Wiles’ adolescent impression of the time, I do not know.
Readers of the book should not look for deep insight into the 60s but a glance, as if flipping quickly through the pages of a newspaper of the time, and should rather look forward to a realistic childhood adventure and drama, which are well-portrayed, mixing the ordinary with the extraordinary, but are not as well-executed as some that I have seen.
Wiles, Deborah. The Sixties Trilogy, Book 1: Countdown. New York: Scholastic, 2013.
This review is not endorsed by Deborah Wiles or Scholastic, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.